Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lies, Damn Lies, and The Truth

Today is World Statistics Day, which I think is an absolutely brilliant idea. Is there a word more maligned and misunderstood than "statistic"? It's connotations often seem entirely negative - "there are damn lies and statistics", "he became a statistic", "you can prove anything with statistics", but statistics are facts. Now there's a difference between "facts" and "the truth" - statistics don't tell the truth, but they don't lie either. The truth is what lies behind the stats.

I wanted to mark this occasion by posting up a few choice stats about transport and commuting, but the latest I could find on the Office for National Statistics web site were 10 years old. So here are a few choice numbers, as published by the ONS, that piqued my interest.

A population of two halves:

The average British woman is 40 years old and has 42 years left to live. If she works full-time she earns £22.151 per year, works 34 hours per week and is educated up to GCSE A*-C grade. She will have 1.96 children in her lifetime.

The average British man is 38, and has 41 years left to live. If he works full-time, he works 39 hours per week and earns £28,270 per year. He is educated up to A-level standard.

Okay, so despite the fact that girls do better at school, the average bloke will progress further with his education. What's this all about? How much is down to peer pressure, expectation, or ethnicity? What about social factors such as teenage pregnancy, or having to look after dependents?

Consuming ourselves:

When a British family goes shopping, the 5 items they are most likely to buy (note the phraseology - is this different from "most commonly bought"?) are: a 2-pint carton of semi-skimmed milk; pre-packed sliced ham; unsweetened breakfast cereal; bacon; a bar of milk chocolate,

Boys aged 7-9 spent £2.40 per week on "games, toys and hobbies" in 2004. Boys aged 13-15 spent £2.60.
Girls aged 7-9 spent £1.20 per week on "games toys and hobbies" in 2004. Girls aged 13-15 spent 50p

Boys aged 13-15 spent £2.50 per week on "clothing and footwear."
Girls aged 13-15 spent £5.30.

Well, this was pre-Facebook and the rise of social networking, so the definition of "toys, games and hobbies" may well have shifted a bit since then. But it does suggest that boys don't grow up. And on the face of it supports the argument that teenage girls are under too much pressure to look good.


The number of single-person households in the UK rose by 2% between 1991 and 2001, and has remained stable since.

That took me by surprise.

Tick tick tick:

In 2008, 24.5% of adults aged 16 or over had a BMI classed as obese.

I've often thought the "obesity timebomb" was an exaggeration but that's nearly a quarter!

With the amount of ideological claptrap that has been spouted by everyone from politicians to trade unions in the past few days since the spending review commenced, there has been a marked absence of any cold, hard facts. Quite uncharacteristically, I have found myself yearning for brutal certainty of a few numbers.

There are certainly a few in there to make you think.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Buried Treasure

The headline news this week has been pretty exciting, from the heart-warming tale of the Chilean miners to the bone-chilling dismantling of the higher education system. But if your understandable fascination with the front page news prevented you from noticing two of the more wonderful tidbits of the week tucked away, metaphorically speaking, in a wee column on page eight, then allow me to enlighten you.

The "Bonfire of the Quangoes" might, depending on your perspective, be a crucial staging post in the government's war on public sector waste, or a cynical attempt to appear decisive and bold whilst essentially rebranding the bureaucracy. But read through the list published yesterday and you will find, amongst the grand-sounding bodies engaged in such weighty functions as saving the environment, safeguarding national security, and watching over the NHS, a little-known, but undoubtedly crucial, organisation known as the Government Hospitality Advisory Committee on the Purchase of Wines. I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth even as I type this. Surely, even in such straitened times, they cannot seriously be contemplating doing away with such a vital body of public servants? But panic ye not - look again and it turns out that, while such minor bodies such as the Film Council and the Health Protection Agency are to be abolished, the role of the people paid to decide what colour plonk to serve the French ambassador is merely "under departmental review." What a relief.

Tucked away towards the back of Private Eye this week is the funniest branding story of the year. Thames Valley University is due to be rebranded - this month actually - to meet the challenges of the brave new higher education world as The University of West London. Trouble is, neither they nor, presumably, the marketing agency that worked on this, appears to have checked that the name was available. It turns out that Brunel have it trademarked. Whoops. Interestingly, TVU was identified last month by the FT as one of the five UK universities running the biggest funding deficits , something that cannot have been helped by spending fifty grand on a rebrand they can't use.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

My Google Complex

I don’t use Google. Okay, that’s a pretty contentious statement – yes I am aware that Google owns Blogger and therefore I am “using” Google even as I type this. But I try to avoid using Google for search. My default option these days is Bing, although it used to be Ask. This came up in conversation one night at the pub recently (I know, I know - but I’ve reached the age where an evening spent propping up the bar while putting the world to rights represents a wild night out), and someone asked me if I really felt that supporting Microsoft instead of Google was striking a blow for the little guy. But that’s not really the point. My stance on Google isn’t supposed to be a statement on corporate ethics – I’m sure Google is no worse than any other denizen of Silicon Valley (as opposed to its rival Silicon-enhanced Valley, where the software may not be as good but executive stress levels are much lower) - even if “Don’t Be Evil” should really be amended to “Don’t Be Evil, But If Other People Want To Be then, Hey, We’ll Take Their Money.”

Google gives the best results, has the best features, continually innovates, and has an elegant visual simplicity that its rivals cannot hope to emulate. But for one business or brand to be so dominant in any market is inevitably detrimental to the development of healthy competition, which we are forever told is both the lifeblood and the moral compass of capitalism. It may be hard to feel much sympathy for the type of ruthless digital entrepreneurs that might be squeezed out of business – they’ll just go make their money elsewhere, you may say, and do we, as "consumers", really need another search engine when we’ve already got one that fulfils all our needs? But this is not just about one fat cat hogging all the cat food. Power corrupts, and monopoly does too (as anyone who has ever put up hotels on Mayfair and Park Lane will testify). And despite the best intentions, Google undoubtedly has the power to put people out of business. Only one result can be top of the listings, and for a small firm, without the budget or the expertise to optimise their ranking, exile to Page 2 could be commercially fatal.

And what happens if Google starts acting like a bully? Would never happen, the Generation E might protest. But then I’m sure Tesco don’t see themselves as corporate bullies, and Starbucks didn’t set out to drive the independent coffee shop to extinction. When companies get too big, it’s not good for competition, it’s not good for the supply chain and, ultimately, it’s not good for consumers either.
Bear that in mind the next time you go searching.