Friday, 27 August 2010

Friday Links

Friday, 20 August 2010

Friday Links

Reverse causality, age, and scientists

According to the BBC, "Fear of falling 'boosts elderly's fall risk'" - that is, the more worried an old person is about falling over, the more likely they are to actually do so. The full text of the study is freely available, for once.

The reporting is actually a reasonable summary of the paper's conclusions, for once - though it as usual misses out the numerous caveats written into the paper and presents the conclusion as established unambiguous fact.

Of course, the paper's conclusions are somewhat dubious.

The research assessed 500 people aged between 70 and 90 and without a fairly long list of disabilities and health conditions to calculate an estimated fall risk based on their physiology (various assessments of proprioception, balance, visual senses, muscle strength, and so on). It then asked them about their perceived fall risk.

The study then compared what the researchers' thought their chance of falling over was with what the individuals themselves thought, and divided them into four groups for "researchers think" high or low versus "individuals think" high or low. The study talks as if these were very distinct groups, but if you look at Figure 2 in the paper, there is a lot of clustering around the centre, and you could shift the boundaries quite significantly with relatively small changes in where you defined the centre point.

Over a year of follow-up study they discovered that of those people who believed they had a low risk of falling, but the researchers' assessment categorised them as high risk, only 30% had actually fallen. Meanwhile, of those people who believed they had a high risk of falling, but who were assessed by the researchers as having a low risk, 40% had fallen.

The obvious explanation, to me, is that the physiological assessment for risk of falling is missing at least one major factor that makes it inaccurate in a number of cases. This is mentioned as a possibility in the paper:

It is possible that the anxious group had a residual physiological fall risk not encompassed by the physiological profile assessment. Thus, although the group’s low physiological profile assessment score indicated that the integrity of individual sensorimotor components was adequate, their relatively poor performance on the coordinated stability test suggests that the integration of each of these physiological systems in the maintenance of dynamic balance control was impaired.22 However, the disparity between physiological and perceived fall risk in the anxious group seemed to be strongly related to psychological factors.

...but dismissed without much of an explanation as to why.

As far as I can tell, they're getting cause and effect completely backwards.

They're assessing people who have been living for some time, and presumably have fallen over during that time. In the 69-89 years prior to this study, they've presumably each built up a good picture of how often they individually fall over. Those who fall over often presumably are more worried about doing so again (or at least, what's actually being measured, think they are more likely to do so again whether or not this worries them).

When you study them for a year - no surprises: past experience is a good predictor of future experience in this area.

The results they've got are exactly the results you'd expect for any event the frequency of which can be predicted reasonably well by the people it happens to, but not as well by a statistical assessment over the population. You could conclude for any of those that "expecting X causes X" but it wouldn't actually be justifiable.

Dismissing this possibility with a vague statement that "the disparity between physiological and perceived fall risk in the anxious group seemed to be strongly related to psychological factors" doesn't actually disprove it, especially when actual fall risk matches perceived fall risk quite well.

But I guess it's easier to disbelieve old people than to believe your "physiological assessment" is flawed.

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Thursday, 19 August 2010

Gender pay gap: survey says 57 years before reporting is accurate

The Chartered Management Institute have released the results of a survey of the gender pay gap among managers.

It looks as if the £10,000 gap reported is the difference between the means, which doesn't make it particularly useful. While it's both unsurprising and wrong that top-level male managers in big companies make several hundred thousand more on average than their female counterparts (and there are significantly more men than women at this level), most women (and indeed almost as many men) are never going to get anywhere near that sort of job anyway. At the junior management level, there was an average £1,000 annual gap between men and women, which is still fairly substantial.

The study has been reported (or at least, the press release reprinted) quite widely, and all of the major news organisations I've found (Telegraph, Guardian, BBC, and Daily Mail) have generally failed to do any sort of useful journalism:

  • They all report the raw figures from the press release (I've rounded them off above because the extra precision is meaningless)
  • They all report the '57 year' figure as if a constant rate averaging means anything at all. It makes sense to note it because the fact that the year-on-year improvement is tiny compared with the size of the gap is important - but it should be made clearer that it's an illustration of the slow rate of progress, not a prediction.
  • A lot of the headlines and sub-headings talk about this being the pay gap as a whole. The article text makes clear it's only talking about managers ... and none of them mention that the pay gap in general, when they go on to look at the UK's generally large pay gap, is not just composed of pay differentials between equivalent jobs ("horizontal") but also due to women not being employed in the higher paid jobs as much ("vertical"), and doesn't just include managers. There are a lot of class issues and intersections with other discriminations being ignored here.
  • Other than the Daily Mail1, none of them note that part-time salaries were converted to a full-time equivalent. The Daily Mail forgets to note that since women are far more likely to work part-time than men, then the conversion may well hide further problems.
  • It's not clear what proportion of the gap is "women being paid less than men for the same job" (which the reporting is assuming and focusing on) and which is "women not being in the high paid jobs" (which seems more likely to be causing most of the gap). The distinction is very important - the Telegraph mentions that the Equality Act will outlaw "pay secrecy" clauses in contracts from October, which will certainly help with the first cause but not with the second - and not actually mentioned. The Guardian mentions Sweden's better record on pay gaps, but it's worth noting that Sweden enforces gender quotas on senior management boards of large companies, so the "vertical" gap is at least slightly reduced there.
  • Some of the articles have reprinted the press release's figures of the number of employees (around 43,000) and organisations (around 200) that were surveyed, but none of them mention whether there was any attempt to get a representative sample within the organisations (i.e. do the proportions of male and female managers surveyed at each level represent the proportions within those organisations).

As is typical, the survey raises far more questions than it answers, and the journalists don't ask any of them.

1 And what have we come to when the - narrowly - best reporting of an equality issue is carried out by the Mail?

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Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Racism and benefit claims

The BBC reports that nine men employed by HMRC have resigned or been fired after an investigation found that they had tampered with records to prevent benefits being paid to at least seventeen BAME families.

They were caught after a detailed audit was carried out when one of the families complained that their data was wrong, and back-payments have now been made to those affected. So, as far as that goes, all good - the system has worked in the long run.

The problem is, though, that child benefit is really straightforward as regards eligibility. Approximately, if you have a child under 16, who lives with you, and you are both UK residents and not in certain immigration categories, then you get child benefit. It's not (for now) means-tested and it's not got a 30-page form to complete for it. It is, essentially, not a particularly difficult thing to audit.

This makes it quite a rarity.

Many benefits - Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Job-seeker's Allowance (JSA), housing benefit, Council Tax benefit, and so on - are extremely heavily tested. They have long and complex forms (30 pages or so when I last claimed some of them; I imagine they've got longer since), and similarly complex rules for who can claim, and how much they're entitled to, based on the social panic over the relatively low amount of fraudulent claims.

If the nine men at HMRC had instead been working for the Department for Work and Pensions, or for the local council, handling claims for those benefits, they'd probably still all have a job, and would have been able to dismiss numerous BAME claims. Tracking them down would have been quite difficult, because there's so much scope for sending claims back for "clarification"1, losing paperwork, and a lot more discretionary decisions - especially with housing benefit where the amount to be paid is very adjustable.

Detecting racism - or other forms of discrimination - for those benefits would be significantly more difficult.

1 One of my JSA forms got returned twice for "clarifications" of data that was either already on the original form or not asked for in the first place on the original form. Conversely, in one particular case where it wasn't straightforward to prove a particular statement I was making was true, the person handling my case suggested a few possible proofs ("No, I don't have that one either") before giving up and saying that I could sign a piece of paper to declare that it was true (bear in mind I've already, at this point, signed the whole form to declare it was true) and that would be okay. It's very arbitrary, and mine was an extremely straightforward case.

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Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The social model of non-disability

Note: This post is further thoughts from me after reading Anna's FWD article Assistive Tech & Pop Culture: “Miss Smith, without your glasses you’re beautiful!”, so it might make more sense if you read that first.

The "Social Model" of disability states loosely that the major reason that differences between people are disabilities is that society is set up so that one point on the scale of human variation (colloquially and unhelpfully called "normal") is privileged by the way society is set up, and others aren't.

There has been a lot written elsewhere about the (usually relatively small) adjustments that could be made to fix current society so that particular variations weren't disabilities or were less severe.

It was created in contrast to the commonly-used "Medical Model" which stated that the variation itself was the problem (which at its worst justified eugenics, and at its best still did nothing about the underlying social problems). Only some variations are considered a medical problem, of course, and which those are changes from time to time (the history of the inclusion of homosexuality in the various revisions of the DSM, for example).

This post is about the Social Model of non-disability, or at least some examples of it. Human variation that could be a disability, if it wasn't for the fact that our society (well, my society, for these examples) is set up so that it makes virtually no difference.

The hypothetical societies below do of course also have effects on things that are currently disabilities - making some more disabling and some less disabling. I've based the non-disabilities for both from variations that I personally have that aren't disabling in my current society - you might the same variation but find it to be noticeably disabling in your current society: if so, I'm failing to recognise some element of my class or national privilege that makes it that way.

Sense of smell

It's a fair indication of how little UK society actually requires a sense of smell that there isn't a common word or phrase for having a below-average one. "Partially-nosed"? "Hard-of-smelling"? Anyway, my sense of smell is well below average, as far as I can tell - even if I don't have a blocked nose, I can't smell much.

The "Medical Model" symptoms of this are about what you'd expect - it takes a higher concentration of a smell in the air before I notice it, and similarly for tastes.

The actual effects in this society are relatively small. Society is just set up so that a sense of smell is very rarely required. Sometimes the only warning of a gas leak is the smell, but I think that's the only case where a message is intentionally conveyed only through smell, it's a very strong-smelling chemical that's been chosen because of that, and it's not a situation where in general an alternative warning can be given.

Experience means that I can cook food that's good to eat without more than the usual problems. When I'm cooking just for myself, I do put more spices in than most people would consider sensible, though.

Of course, society could be set up to be more difficult for people with a below-average sense of smell. It's such an under-used sense currently that I'm having trouble thinking of examples, though - smell trails ("follow lemon for the southbound line") are possible, as is more explicit use of odours to set the tone of art or speeches (like background music is currently used).

Reading while travelling

I don't particularly like travelling in general, but one thing that makes it particularly unpleasant is that I can't focus and concentrate on nearby objects for very long while doing so without getting headaches and nausea sufficiently strong to make further concentration impossible for several minutes or more.

So, I can't read, or do puzzles, or look at maps, while in a moving vehicle. Fortunately, society is again set up that this isn't that necessary. There are jobs where working on a laptop - or in previous times, pen and paper - while travelling up and down the country on a train is a major part of the job. There aren't, however, that many - it's a sufficiently rare requirement that people almost certainly can avoid jobs that need it.

Now imagine that the prevailing architectural paradigm of the last few centuries had not been "buildings of varying sizes, on the ground, with four walls and a roof, in clusters" but "individual small rooms, raised off the ground on stilts to various heights, separated by some distance and connected by walkways, ramps, and in more modern times, miniature railways". It has lots of advantages - much more garden space, the land below can be used for farming and keeping animals, and doesn't need to be particularly flat to build on - enough that a suggestion of "why not build houses" would be looked at oddly by people used to this method.

Much more travel is needed, as a small village might now loosely span several square miles: over rather than inside its local farmland. The rail networks provide a convenient solution, though - office train cabs with a built-in desk. Get in at the start of the day, and set the destination for your first meeting. The network operator (nowadays, this is mostly all computerised, with a few supervisors, but thirty years ago there were points boxes each with their own operator, and complex procedures to hand-off from one zone to another) will set the points accordingly for you to make sure you get there at the scheduled time. When you get there, your cab moves onto a short circular meeting track, to be joined by the cabs of the other attendees. Unoccupied projector cabs, whiteboard cabs, and so on can be put onto the track as well, or in the fancier meeting-tracks, a separate higher track so that they rotate at a different speed to the meeting and you're never stuck with your back to the screen.

People like me, who can't work on the move, get stuck with a low-status ground job (literally looked down upon), unless we're lucky enough to get a job in one of the few stationary installations. Which, since we spent our entire time in the class-tracks being ill, isn't that likely.

Add in a social moral approval of movement, from the secularisation of a nomadic ancestors' religion, and the ideas of having stationary rather than moving meeting-tracks and class-tracks, and having stopping points with nice views for office cabs, start to get considered "special accommodations" that get in the way of most people's enjoyment of a varied view through their working day, which has been shown to be vital to creativity and efficiency.

The radical suggestion of building compact office complexes, where you could just walk from place to place, is completely rejected. They'd require far too many stilts to be stable, you couldn't place enough windmills on top of something that big to power it without them getting in the way of each other, it'd shade too much ground surface, need lots of flat land, and you'd still have to travel some way to get to it. They'll be suggesting we live in ground cities like our primitive ancestors or foreigners next.

Other variations

So, what other variations, currently either having a neutral or positive effect on your ease of living in this society, or only causing very minor and extremely situational problems, have readers experienced, and in what alternative societies would they be considered (possibly severe, possibly medicalised) disabilities? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Friday, 13 August 2010

Friday Links

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Introducing the Alternative Vote swingometer

I've now written an online version of the calculator from this post, so you can try it out too.

Alternative Vote Swingometer for England (requires Javascript)

Enter the first preference percentages for the three major parties and "others", and then enter the transfer rates. Press the calculate button to give the results. Alternatively, use one of the "quick calculations" links to automatically complete the form and run the calculations based on an opinion poll.

For each party you'll be told:

  1. The number of English seats won
  2. The change from the previous election
  3. The proportion of this change that was caused by changes in first preferences (UPS Component)
  4. The proportion of this change that was caused by the candidate ahead on first preferences losing on transfers (UT Component)

So, for example, in the Populous/Times poll of 23 June, Labour win 198 seats, an increase of 7. On first preferences alone, they gain 19 seats, but lose most of these again after transfers. The UT Component can be viewed as a rough measure of "who benefits from Alternative Vote in this scenario".

Below the summary table is a list of all the constituencies that are changing hands.

It uses approximately the same algorithm as before: various notes are below.

Currently it is of course analysing an election that will almost certainly never happen - if the general election takes place under Alternative Vote, it will also be taking place under new boundaries and for 50 fewer MPs. Once the boundary review is done, I'll switch to the notional figures for the new constituencies.

  • I've added quick links to calculate based on various polls that ask about second preferences.
  • Transfer rates remain stateless - votes will transfer away from an eliminated candidate in the given proportions regardless of their original source. There is no useful third preference polling out there (there's only one useless one, for that matter), so I'm assuming this based on my previous experience of AV counts.

    In practice this will almost always make no difference. "Others" collectively will be eliminated first in all but the weird constituencies. Their votes will transfer almost evenly anyway. The real determinant is the transfers from the third-placed major party in the constituency, almost all of which will be second preferences rather than third or later preferences.

    You will be able to find very marginal constituencies where this assumption being significantly false causes a change in result, but I'd be surprised if you can find one where adjusting the first preference votes of one of the major parties by 0.5% (well inside the margin of error of polling) didn't stop this happening.

    If we had four or five equally-matched parties in most constituencies, rather than two or rarely three, then third preferences would be worth a closer look. For now, they're not worth the effort.

  • Polling (and experience) suggests that between 20% and 40% of votes will be untransferable ("transfer to nowhere") at any stage. You can adjust this rate since it seems to vary between parties.
  • There's some polling now on whether people's AV first preferences would be the same as their FPTP first preferences. In most cases, the answer is 'Yes'. The number of people who do differently is relatively small and the net effect is almost certainly smaller than the margin of error in the first preference polling.
  • Looking at the recent polling, transfers from Others do seem to be split relatively evenly. There might be a slight bonus to the Lib Dems, but it's well within the margin of error.
  • Results for Wyre Forest and Brighton Pavilion (respectively lost and won by 'Others' at the last election) are going to be extremely inaccurate. Buckingham (the Speaker's constituency) is also ignored. Some other constituencies can be won by 'Others' in the right circumstances; take that with several pinches of salt.
  • I'm using proportional swing rather than uniform swing, because that won't give negative vote totals for a party. [Edit 8 April: You can now choose which you prefer. Uniform swing is probably better]
  • There's still no usable polling for Scotland or Wales (and there's never usable polling for Northern Ireland), so for now the swingometer is for English seats only.

I've tried to make it as accessible as I can, but because of the limitations of Blogger it has to be in Javascript, which makes this quite a bit more difficult. If you have problems using it, let me know in comments and I'll try to fix it. Other bug reports and suggestions for improvements are also welcome.

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Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Class and court reporting

The BBC reports that a man has been jailed for a year for grabbing a helicopter as it took off. This particular bit of my reporting caught my eye:

Sentencing Jafari, Judge Michael Roach said it was a "deliberate and much more a reckless and dangerous act" and, despite the fact he was a business and family man, he had "no choice" other than to send him to prison.

From that reporting, it sounds like, had Jafari been working-class from an inner-city area with a bad reputation (let's ignore the implausibility of anyone with that background being able to have a helicopter land close enough to grab even if they wanted to) rather than a millionaire in an extremely expensive part of Bristol, a custodial sentence would have been much more obvious. Looking at some of the other reporting of the case, though - Metro, Bristol Evening Post, Daily Mail - that's not actually what was said.

But sentencing yesterday, at Bristol Crown Court, Judge Michael Roach told Jafari: ‘Grabbing the right-hand skid on take off was very dangerous and was liable to destabilise the aircraft which had only risen 6ft off the ground. In my judgement your behaviour was deliberate and reckless.

‘You are an intelligent, resourceful man who on this particular occasion let your temper get the better of you and you acted in a dangerous manner. In my judgement the case is too serious to justify a suspended sentence.’

He ordered Jafari to pay £2,800 in costs. ‘There is no reason, it seems to me, why the public should bear the expense.’

No reference to him being a business or family man at all in the judge's words.

So where is the - and it's not in quotes, so it's not directly from his words - BBC's assertion that the sentencing was "despite [him being] a business and family man", rather than in the judge's actual words "[because] the case is too serious to justify a suspended sentence" coming from?.

The judge does refer to Jafari as "intelligent, resourceful" but that's not at all the same thing; furthermore the judge does not put these characteristics forward as a reason for a more lenient sentence (if anything, they're part of the reason to require costs be paid, which the BBC doesn't mention).

So the judge doesn't appear to believe that sentencing should depend on social class, but some of the BBC's writers do.

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Tuesday, 3 August 2010

What happened next.

A few notes on what's happening now:

[trigger warnings]

  • I got a reply to the letter I sent about the National Child Measurement Programme letters. No surprises: the government will keep doing what it has been doing, whether it makes sense or not. I've followed up to ask for more details of the research they're using to justify their decisions.
  • A YouGov poll asks about opinions on rape defendant anonymity. A majority are in favour (considerably fewer women than men are in favour) but without a second question about how they feel for anonymity for non-rape defendants it's hard to tell why this is. The question wording really doesn't make clear the limited extent of anonymity (that it's only limited reporting restrictions, not that it wouldn't actually make any difference), which also makes things hard to tell.
  • From PinkNews, the BBC trust thinks that a non-apology is sufficient for its posting of the question "Should homosexuals face execution?".
  • When looking at the mass of exceptions to the Equality Act, I somehow forgot to look through the Schedules (many of which are titled "Exceptions", which should have been a big hint). There are a whole mass of further unhelpful exceptions here, and Zoe Brain and Helen G have highlighted several relating to gender reassignment.

Meanwhile, Jake Berry MP (Conservative, Rossendale & Darwen) asks if Parliament can get a cat. It will be investigated, apparently.