Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Imaginary Friends

It's a peccadillo but  I have to confess that I sometimes listen to old episodes of Desert Island Discs while I'm doing insufferably boring things like cleaning the bathroom. So at the weekend I was listening to Alison Lurie talking to Roy Plomley. 

What I've read of Lurie I  liked, though she came over on the show as uptight and humourless. No matter, it's the kind of setting  that doesn't always bring out the best in people. What surprised me though is what she had to say about Imaginary Friends

Plomley asked her directly whether the novel was based on anything in particular, or words to that effect.  Yes, she answered, it was influenced by Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance and by Henry James' The Bostonians. OK, I can see the former and I'll take the latter on trust, but I always thought the most important influence in the everyday sense of the word was Festinger, Riecken and Schachter's When Prophecy Fails.  I mean, it's virtually a fictional retelling of the same events.

At least that's what I always used to tell my students when I was trying to fake some knowledge of ethnographic fieldwork. Maybe I was wrong or maybe she was thinking about influence in some deeper literary sense than my literal minded interpretation. Still, very odd.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Wednesday morning magic

Two pieces of musical magic for Wednesday morning. First up Chet Baker's Almost Blue. Chet's  doing a Miles pastiche but man can he make that horn sing. And then there is Daniel Kahn's Yiddish version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. Personally I think the lyrics are better than the original. Kahn also does a nice line in Yiddish worker's songs, but I admit that might be a bit of an esoteric taste. L'chaim.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The class liberation officer

The Oxford Mail has been carrying a story that St Hilda's College students have appointed a 'class liberation officer'. Apparently "...people from working-class backgrounds needed support because [sic] suffered from classism while at university." They go on to quote a student who in a comment to The Sunday Times said: "Insults such as 'chav', chav-themed social nights and questions such as 'why are you wearing Primark?' can make poor students feel upset and worthless."

I can't claim any special insight into the minds of today's undergraduates since I meet so few of them, but I can't help thinking that previous generations were made of sterner stuff. Working class students were very thin on the ground when I was an undergraduate but generally we found much more pressing things to feel upset and worthless about, like third-world poverty, nuclear Armageddon and failed love affairs.

And as for our clothing, well that was a competition to see who could wear the most proletarian gear possible. Combat jackets, donkey jackets, Doc Maarten boots, shoes full of holes,  army surplus jumpers and shirts, jeans that looked as though they hadn't been washed for 5 years. I spent a year wearing a lumberjack coat with an acrylic fleecy collar purchased when I was 13 from C&A. Nobody batted an eyelid and I only threw it away because the arms got ridiculously short  and I could'nt do the zip up any more!

Primark? We used to dream of Primark!

William Trevor RIP

So Farewell
William Trevor Cox.

You wrote
Death in
But you died in

Fool of Fortune.
Keith's mum
Said you should
Have a Nobel.

But they gave
It to Dylan.

And now you
Blowin' in the wind.

E. J. Lundqvist 98¾

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Sartre on class

"Les classes ne sont pas, on les fait"." This seems to me to be right in various ways, not all of which may have been intended by Sartre. I'm guessing it comes from Critique de la raison dialectique but I doubt I'll be reading it soon to find out.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

UK earnings inequality: the view from ONS

A functioning democracy needs good quality economic and social statistics. Politicians may have an easier life in a post fact world but we, the citizens, shouldn't let them get away with it. An important part of holding our elected representatives to account is the existence of a well functioning organization, not under direct government control,  tasked with the production of high quality statistical information. That is what ONS is supposed to be.

It's been common knowledge  that things at ONS have not been going so well. The move out of London to Newport resulted in a significant loss of expertise that has been difficult to replace and the Bean report  confirmed what everyone had long suspected. Yesterday I saw a stunning illustration of just how bad things have gotten.

For reasons that I won't go into I wanted to know the mean and standard deviation of full time earnings in the UK. Let's leave aside the fact that the standard deviation of an earnings distribution is not an especially sensible thing to be inquiring about. I doubted that I would easily be able to find the information, but as always I cheerfully Googled and was surprised to find that I was not the only one with this strange interest.  In March 2014 a certain  Mr Travers made a FOI request to ONS asking for the mean and standard deviation of annual salaries in the UK. Even better ONS provided him with the information and you can see their response on their website.

Great, I thought. That was easy. Then I started looking at the numbers. They come from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE). In 2012-13 the mean earnings of a full-time employee in the UK was about £33,000 which looks plausible. In fact from other sources I know that the median in that year was around £27,000.  Then I looked at the estimate of the standard deviation. Oh dear. ONS expect Mr Travers to believe that the standard deviation is £133. That implies a coefficient of variation of about 0.004 or a Gini of roughly 0.002 (the current Gini for income in the UK is about 0.34). If you take this seriously you reach the conclusion that UK is the most equal society in recorded history.

How can it be that even in its emaciated state our national statistical agency employs people to communicate with the public that  have no  feeling for the correct orders of magnitude of the numbers they deal with? OK, maybe it was delegated to the dimmest of the interns or maybe it was a Friday night rush job, but my guess is that nothing normally gets out of ONS before it is signed off by a more senior supervisor who you would expect to know better.

It's easy to make mistakes with numbers,  I know because I make them all the time (but mostly spot them before I embarrass myself) but ONS should do better. They owe it to us and we have a right to expect it. In a world where populist politicians get off on denigrating experts making mistakes like this is another small step towards the new age of darkness.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Leonard Cohen RIP

So long
Leonard Norman Cohen.

Poet, singer, melancholic.


You were
The favourite game
Of the beautiful losers.

But now it's game over.

W. B. Yeats 11 ¾