Waitron Unit of the Year Award

Via, this:


There isn\’t a waiter alive who hasn\’t wanted to do that to one customer or another.

Yes, it\’s terribly naughty, tsk, tsk, but if there really were a Waitron Unit of the Year Award, one where the electoral college were composed only of those with at least five years\’ experience beneath the tray (people, like, say, me), then that would be the runaway winner for 2008 and it\’s not even the end of February yet.

Why Learn Maths?

Brian Micklethwait asks:

But what about the kind of maths that really is maths, as opposed to mere arithmetic, with lots of complicated sorts of squiggles? What about infinite series, irrational numbers, non-Euclidian geometry, that kind of thing? I, sort of, vaguely, know that such things have all manner of practical and technological applications. But what are they? What practical use is the kind of maths you do at university? I hit my maths ceiling with a loud bump at school, half way through doing A levels and just when all the truly mathematical stuff got seriously started, and I never learned much even about what the practical uses of it all were, let alone how to do it.

I also get that maths has huge aesthetic appeal, and that it is worth studying and experiencing for the pure fun and the pure beauty of it all, just like the symphonies of Beethoven or the plays of Euripides.

But what are its real world applications? Please note that I am not asking how to teach maths, although I cannot of course stop people who want to comment about that doing so, and although I am interested in that also. No, here, I am specifically asking: why learn maths?


I would split the subject into two. For past a certain level, it most certainly is two entirely different disciplines. The first is pure maths. For those who like it (most definitely a subset of the population) it\’s glorious, beautiful, engaging, even thrilling. It\’s also a description of the universe as it ought to be. Any connection between results and the real world is entirely coincidental: pure mathematicians are the original "yes, that\’s all very well in practice, but is it true in theory?" people. Once you climb into the higher realms (well past A levels) the value is like that of poetry. That\’s not to say that more practically useful things don\’t come from it, of course they do, but it\’s not done for its practicality nor will anyone attempting to do it for its practicality do very well at it. 

Statistics rather reverses this. Looking at it in one way it\’s rather like, yes, well, this is all very well in theory but is it true in practice? We go out and gather real world information and then examine it to see what it tells us. While we might think that x happens because of y, we actually want to find out whether that is true. Or does y happen because of x? Or do they both happen because of a? Or are they simply correlated rather than caused by any of them? And many statistical tests are designed to work out how important our result is.

There\’s two things that statistics are extremely useful for. The first is to teach you how to gamble: that\’s the root of the whole subject anyway. Seriously, it really started with people trying to work out how to win at cards and dice. Things like the Fibonacci series, which explains things as varied as the placing of petals on a flower and possibly the curling of a wave, also explain the liklihood of throwing a 4, 5 or any other number with a pair of dice. From that we derive ! and so on.

But the second thing it\’s extremely useful for is politics. The standard intro by some pantywaist who wants to steal your liberty, livelihood and freedoms is "research has shown that….". Statistics enables you to evaluate whether research actually has shown (the death rate from Ebola is 80% so yes, clamping down on movements and civil liberties during an outbreak can be justified) or not shown ("the part time pay gap for women is 40%", no, it isn\’t, that\’s comparing the wages per hour of part time women against full time men. Comparing part time women against part time men gives us 11%.) the point that the speaker is trying to make.

Which of the two you are good at, which you prefer doing, largely depends upon your mindset at the beginning. I\’m not very good at either, but I do struggle to understand the statistics side as well as I can for defending those liberties, livelihoods and freedoms from those who would steal them on spurious grounds seems to me rather important.

Gail Sheridan

Oh dear Gail:

The wife of Tommy Sheridan has been charged with lying under oath during the socialist politician\’s high-profile libel trial against the News of the World.

Gail Sheridan, 44, whose testimony formed a central part of her husband\’s case during a 23-day trial in 2006, was charged with perjury after six hours\’ questioning by detectives. Her father, Gus Healy, 71, who also testified at the trial, was also charged.

The move comes two months after officers charged Mr Sheridan with perjury.


Within the past 10 days three more of Mr Sheridan\’s colleagues – including a former MSP – have also been charged. Rosemary Byrne, 59, who lost her seat in the Scottish Parliament last year, Graeme McIver, 39, and Jock Penman, 58, were charged with perjury after voluntarily reporting to police for questioning.

All three testified on Mr Sheridan\’s behalf and are now members of his newly formed Solidarity party.


In a statement today, the party repeated its claim that Mr Sheridan and his colleagues were the victims of a "political witch-hunt". A spokesman said: "The only crime that Tommy Sheridan is guilty of is the crime of speaking truth to power."

I think the wheels are coming off that argument, don\’t you think so too?

Neil, Neil

I was going to write something scathing about Neil Clark\’s latest little foray into matters economic:

and, last but not least, bringing back that unfairly maligned 1970s body- the Prices Commission.

But I find myself beaten to it by a comment on the piece:

"Sorry, the Prices Commission? Seriously? You want price-fixing back? What kind of economic illiterate are you?"

Neil Clark\’s credentials as an economic visionary are discussed in depth at: http://timworstall.typepad.com/timworstall/2005/02/bring_back_the_.html


Quite Sir Simon

I might quibble over where precisely the dividing line ought to be but this makes perfect sense:

Government must render unto Caesar the things that clearly are Caesar\’s: local monopoly public services run by dedicated civil servants under political direction. It can then render unto the gods of the free market those services suitable for competitive tendering, audited efficiency and risk transfer. It is grimly ironic that one service that should unequivocally be in the free market is retail banking.

Comment at CiF

Peter Tatchell:

"free trade need to be subordinated to sustainable policies for the survival of humanity."

This is something I really don\’t understand about you Greens (ie, the political party, not environmentalists in general). What is it that you\’ve got against trade? By the division of labour and the subsequent trading of the production, for any given level of resource use we get a higher standard of living. Or, for any given standard of living, we use fewer resources.
Since you\’re all concerned about the use of resources, I really don\’t get the antipathy to trade. Why do you oppose the very thing which gives what you want, lower resource use?

Sexism at the BBC

There\’s an element of truth to the complaints:

Stephanie Flanders, the Newsnight presenter, has become the latest high-profile journalist to criticise the lack of women over 50 on television.

The Oxford and Harvard graduate, who is to replace Evan Davis as the BBC\’s economics editor, said it was wrong that female news presenters were dropped as soon as they hit a certain age.

I\’ve no doubt that women are treated differently as they age from the men they work alongside. However, I\’m also pretty certain that these same women are treated differently from the men they work alongside when young too. Whether this should be true or not a glance at your screen will show you that the women who are chosen to present are so chosen because of the way they look. We don\’t see incredibly bright and talented munts on our screens.

To complain that once the looks go one is disposed of, when it\’s the looks that got you there in the first place, just doesn\’t work, sorry.

If Only…

An MP was stoned by a gang of youths

Despite the fact that the MP was doing exactly the right thing etc, there\’s a part of all of us that cheers at those with such a robust view of the correct way to treat politicians.

Will No One Rid Me of This Professor?

Julian Le Grand is at it again:

Supermarkets should be banned from selling alcohol to combat Britain\’s binge-drinking culture, says a health adviser to the Government.

Yes, really.

Professor Julian le Grand, the chairman of Health England, said customers should be made to make a conscious decision to buy drink by going into a different shop instead of being "lured" into buying alcohol during their weekly grocery shop.

He said alcohol had become "like adult candy", with customers seduced into buying cut-price drink on their way around the supermarket in the same way that sweets used to be placed near tills.

Prof le Grand said: "I am in favour of separate alcohol outlets. Certain states in the United States and certain provinces in Canada have separate stores. I would probably ban supermarkets from selling alcohol altogether."

We\’re all such children that we just don\’t know what it is that we\’re buying. What? You mean wine contains alcohol? Beer too? My word, I never knew that!

He also said there should be a "dramatic rise" in prices.

Yup, it\’s all too cheap for you grubby proles. How dare you do what you enjoy rather than what I tell you you should.

Charging For Visas

The basic principle here seems sound enough:

Foreigners coming to Britain are to face a new "immigrant tax" under Government plans to try to make them help pay for the schools and hospitals they use, ministers are to announce.

Why not charge people who want to come here? However:

Sources indicate that the additional levy could be set at 10 per cent of the visa fee – an additional £20 for the usual £200 visa granted to those wishing to stay in Britain longer than six months.

That\’s not actually what they\’re doing. The amount is so inconsequential, almost certain to be swallowed up in the costs of administrating the scheme, that it\’s simply a political gesture, look, see, we\’re doing something about all these appalling foreigners. Dog whistle stuff.

Oh Dear

Good grief, are students nowadays really like this?

On Saturday I stood at Warwick University\’s union bar. I had been speaking at a rather excellent student conference and the organisers had invited me to join the students for the evening. Large numbers of the 400 students present were standing without anything to drink, unable to afford the highly-taxed lagers that were on sale. As a result, students stood in straight lines listening quietly to the live band. No one was smoking, which of course would have been illegal.

George Today

Hmm, I seem to be making long comments at CiF today. Sort of taking it to the moonbats rather than just preaching to the converted here perhaps.

"I can accept that a unit of measurement that allows us to compare the human costs of different spending decisions is a useful tool."

Good, because that\’s the only way it can be done. NICE looks at the cost of drugs by valuing QUALY (quality of life adjusted years) and says that if the use of a treatment gives a year of good quality life for less than £50 k or so then the NHS will pay for it. If it costs more than that then they won\’t (although there are exceptions) as Polly told us recently.
The rail system says that spending upon safety matters should go ahead is one life per year is saved per £1.4 million spent. More than that and we don\’t spend on the safety.
Local councils (I think this is true at least, these numbers are from memory) change road layouts if the cost is less than £100,000 per life saved per year.

There are, as you continually point out George, limited resources in the world (your mistake is in thinking they are fixed over time: they are not, but at any moment they are) and thus decisions must be made about what use to apply them to.
Claiming that human life is invalauable is all very noble but it\’s extremely childish. Should we spend a £ billion to cure one person of cancer (that is, in fact, the sort of sum we do spend in certain pollution reducing regulations)? Or would that £ billion be better spent eradicating malaria in a few countries? Which contributes more to human welfare?
You might argue that we should spend £2 billion: but pretty soon we do come up against the constraint of everything we have and thus need to make decisions and prioritise.
And yes, just as we have to do this with the NHS, with safety spending upon roads, upon railways, we have to do this with climate change.

It isn\’t, you should note, about profits: it\’s about the social benefit of emitting carbon as against the social cost of emitting carbon (or methane, NOX etc). This is exactly the sort of calculation we have to make if we are to even conceptually arrive at a rational decision. What is the cost of a Bangladeshi farmer losing his fields to floods in 2080? What is the cost of Bangladesh either developing to American living standards (as one of the models underlying the IPCC report assumes) or not doing so (as another model does)? What is the cost to us in lowered living standards of reducing carbon emissions?

Now what you can do is argue about the values placed upon all of these things: that\’s how we get the differences that we do in the social cost of carbon. Nordhaus seems to think, in one paper at least, that it\’s $2.50 a tonne CO2-e. Stern came out with $85 per tonne. If you want to say that human life is more valuable than Stern does, fine, argue for a higher social cost of emissions. That\’s a valid and logical thing to do (even if most will disagree with you, there\’s nothing conceptually wrong with the logic).

But to insist that no price can be put upon human life is insane. We do it all the time, we have to do it all the time, for, sadly, we do indeed have limited resources at any one time.



To Neil Boorman:

And when the time came to pass that water out the other end, there were plenty of public toilets to choose from. Today, I must buy a bottle of water for £1 and, later on, plead with the manager of a coffee shop or pub to let me use the toilet.

Seems the prostate problems have kicked in rather younger than is usual.

Polly Today


US sub-prime debt has topped $100bn

I know Polly doesn\’t do finance but really….here it is in full context:

The UK is still at the top of the G7 developed countries for growth, and employment is still rising, with interest rates low and falling. Meanwhile world oil prices have tripled, US sub-prime debt has topped $100bn, and in Germany not one bank but three have had to be taken over by state banks after hitting the rocks.

Wht she means is that the acknowledged losses, the ones that banks have owned up to, are $100 billion. And even that figure is wrong (too low). Sub-Prime is well over a $ trillion. Sigh.

So Labour needs to attract deeper loyalty, better reasons why people should support it –

Anyone got any good ideas? I\’m completely out I\’m afraid.