Mar 04 2015

“We’ve got something for everyone” – Why astrology and homeopathy win votes

I don’t know whether to get angry, despair, or both when I hear David Tredinnick MPs pronouncements on astrology and homeopathy and why NHS spending on them might be an effective use of our taxes.

From a politician’s perspective, there does appear to be some mileage in championing these pseudosciences. A substantial minority of the UK population believe in astrology and/or horoscopes (22%, according to a 2009 Gallup survey – up from 7% in 1951), and a majority of us believe that homeopathy is ‘just as’ or ‘more than’ effective as conventional treatments.

Fortunately, the scientific truth of a hypothesis isn’t a popularity contest, as the resolution of the controversy surrounding the method of cholera transmission in Victorian London demonstrates. The popular belief of the disease being spread by invisible cholera clouds was eventually proved to be wrong, consequently saving countless lives.

Turning back to astrology, there was considerable effort expended between 1980 and 2000, reported in the peer-reviewed astrological research journals of the time, on attempts to test a whole range of claims empirically. This summary of 91 abstracts demonstrates that the “results were invariably incommensurate with astrological claims“.

But even before these efforts, the psychologist Bertram Forer had uncovered an interesting phenomenon, often referred to as the Barnum effect, during one of his experiments in the late 1940s(*). It involved administering a personality test to his students and subsequently ignoring the results. Instead, each student received privately the same thirteen items of feedback:

 

1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.

2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.

3. You have a great deal of unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage.

4. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.

5. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.

6. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.

7. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.

8. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.

9. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.

10. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.

11. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.

12. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.

13. Security is one of your major goals in life.

 

Each student was then asked to rate on a scale of 0 (poor) to 5 (perfect) how effective the test was at revealing personality in general (mean score = 4.8) and their own personality in particular (mean score = 4.5). All from a set of faked results!

In the words of Forer:

 

After the papers had been returned to the writer students were asked to raise their hands if they felt the test had done a good job. Virtually all hands went up and the students noticed this. Then the first sketch item was read and students were asked to indicate by hand whether they had found anything similar on their sketches. As all hands rose, the class burst into laughter … Similarities between the demonstration and the activities of charlatans were pointed out.

 

Luckily for politicians, politics is a popularity contest. Given that the direction of travel in the UK population as a whole is one of increasing belief in the pseudosciences, a political stance that embraces them may actually help, rather than hinder electoral success.

For as this 2014 piece of psychological research notes, people who are given information that clearly demonstrates their belief is in error tend to rationalise it away as “just another opinion”.

And this, dear reader, really does make me angry and despair.

 

(*) Forer, B. (1949). The fallacy of personal validation – a classroom demonstration of gullibility. Journal of abnormal and social psychology, 44(1), 118–123.

 

Mar 01 2015

Foreign exchange controls in 1955 and 1969: when a Labour MP sounded like UKIP

I was sorting through some more of my late father’s things today and came across this leaflet, dated March 1955. It details the foreign exchange restrictions that were in force at the time. These were of relevance to my father as he made what I believe to be his first trip abroad in 1956. £25 is equivalent to approximately £600 in 2015 terms.

Foreign exchange controls were finally abolished in 1979, having been a feature for most of the post-second world war period. One particularly lively exchange in the House of Commons in 1969 over a proposal to remove them is documented in Hansard. Moved by John Peel, the Conservative MP for Leicester South East, he introduced his argument that the (then £50) limit should be abolished like this:

 

I regard this limit on our travel freedom as a typical piece of frustrating Socialism. It is an obstruction to one of the dearest freedoms of the British people, namely, our ancient freedom to travel and to move amongst other peoples and in other countries where and when we want.

 

The motion was eventually defeated, but it seems highly unlikely to me that this was because of the speech made during the debate by Hector Hughes, the Labour MP for Aberdeen North. I reproduce it in all of its dubious glory below, reflecting that the attitudes expressed do not necessarily seem to be a million miles away from those held by some present-day UKIP supporters.

 

Britain today is in a very particular and peculiar financial position. That is one reason why I oppose the Motion.

The Motion is typically anti-British. It is, therefore, unpatriotic and should be defeated. It is designed to drain from Britain money which is badly needed at home.

It used to be said that it was necessary for one’s education to travel abroad. That is no longer necessary. We have the amenities, the instruction and the advantages of countries all over the world without travelling. As Shakespeare said, we have, England, bound in with the triumphant sea, Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege. There is no need today for people to go abroad to obtain what used to be called the advantages of travel.

I oppose this wrong-headed Motion on several grounds which I shall state briefly and seriatim. First, we need the money at home. Secondly, our holiday camps need holiday workers and holiday makers. Thirdly, our hotels, both at the seaside and in the country, need visitors and money. I know that the beautiful city of Aberdeen, which I have the honour to represent, could do with more visitors than it gets today. In the present international situation Britain needs attention at home, both at work and in play.

In our present circumstances we should not pour our largesse abroad. We live in particular circumstances when such money as we have in Britain should be retained. The time may come when the authors of the Motion will have their way and we may pour money into foreign countries. Where are we to go? To dictatorships? To Spain? To Greece? No; I say we should keep our money at home and enjoy the advantages and the fruits of Britain.

It is old-fashioned nonsense to say that we must go abroad for our education. We have at home all that we want. The other evening on television I had the advantage of seeing pictures of five countries. In our modern libraries there are books of a descriptive character. We have every advantage at home without pouring our money abroad into foreign countries. Butlins and other holiday camps offer not only education but enjoyment to people who want to stay at home. It is wrong for the authors of the Motion to try to induce the Chancellor to change his beneficent rule about the £50 allowance. Let us stay at home. Let us protect our industry. Let us encourage trade, industry, commerce and employment here, instead of spending our money abroad.

 

Feb 27 2015

On Labour’s financially illiterate tuition fee proposals

At the height of the tuition fees debacle, I seriously considered leaving the Liberal Democrats. At one time, I even considered joining the Labour Party. Yes, I was that annoyed/frustrated/angry – but it didn’t take too much thinking for me to come to the conclusion that being in the fire would be even worse than staying in a rather warm frying pan.

I passionately believe that higher education needs to be funded in a way that acknowledges the overwhelming public good that comes from having a substantial number of people in our economy who are highly skilled and more importantly, having people around who are able to think critically and innovate.

Access to higher education is a significant driver of social mobility. In the 1980s, I was the first person in my family to attend university. The opportunities provided by my degree have helped me immeasurably. Having a degree has also meant that I’ve paid substantially more in tax over my working life than I would have otherwise done. But that’s the way it should be. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it – “I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilisation.”

For these reasons, I believe that we need a government which will develop policies for higher education to encourage people of all ages (not just the young) to study. As few barriers as possible should be put in the way of those who wish to take up this opportunity. Financial or social, real or imaginary barriers – it doesn’t matter. Pulling up the drawbridge on higher education betrays individuals by removing opportunity, as well as being economically illiterate.

The current fees system isn’t one that I like. The consequence of  the near trebling of the fee cap has undoubtedly been the catastrophic decline in opportunity for mature and part-time students. Young people may not have been put off higher education, but an important section of the population (part-time study accounted for nearly 40% of all students before the last election) has been. For this reason I still want to see a higher education system funded from a fair, general taxation system – the absolute opposite of what the Conservatives wish to see.

If you accept that you have to get to this goal a step at a time, then the fairest way to achieve it isn’t to make stepwise cuts to the headline tuition fee. That’s simply a political stunt that only helps better off graduates (*). Hardly fair and progressive and is, as Martin Lewis succinctly points out, a financially illiterate policy.

No – the right way, the fair way to get there is to raise the threshold at which repayments start (+), helping poorer graduates first. Which is interestingly enough what the Liberal Democrats have managed to achieve in government against the background of both of the other major parties simply wanting to raise fees as the Browne Report (commissioned by Labour) suggested.

I therefore hope that the Liberal Democrats are going to suggest raising this threshold at a rate above inflation in the 2015 manifesto. It certainly won’t repair the damage of a broken promise from 2010, but the incoherence of Labour’s policy announcement today provides a new opportunity to demonstrate that we care about social justice, even if the other parties don’t.

 

 

(*) I’m pretty sure that this policy announcement won’t help the Labour Party. The electorate isn’t stupid, and you’d have to be really stupid to think that cutting the headline fee was better financially for poorer graduates than raising the repayment threshold.

(+) It’s why the Liberal Democrat policy of raising the personal tax allowance is also so much better than re-introducing a 10% starting tax rate, as Labour have suggested.

 

Feb 26 2015

Drink Levers Morning Glory Coffee

While I was out and about photographing Derby’s bridges a couple of weeks ago, I came across this rather splendid ghost sign opposite St. Helen’s House on King Street.

Levers Morning Glory Coffee

The rest of the sign reads:

 

Tastes as good as it smells

Lodge Lane Derby

 

The heart of Lodge Lane is just a five minute stroll away.

 

Feb 25 2015

Two more months …

With no substantial changes in my blood results this morning to report, I’m on watch and wait for another two months.

This is good news.

No – excellent news – as it means I should get to spend a happy week walking around Monmouth and the surrounding countryside in early April, as well as being able to see the London debut of the Encompass Productions version of Emily’s play, Stasis. Tickets are available for £14 (£10 for concessions) from the White Bear Theatre.

 

Feb 15 2015

Underneath the arches: five of my favourite bridges in Derby

Having been inspired by Mark Pack, Stephen Glenn and Jonathan Calder‘s posts about their five favourite bridges, I’ve also decided to join in with the latest meme that’s sweeping the world of Liberal Democrats who blog(*).

The additional challenge I set myself was to find all five of my bridges within the City of Derby, as that’s home. The photographs were all taken yesterday, so unfortunately the light wasn’t particularly good.

1. The Bridge That Isn’t There

East Street, Derby, 14-02-2015I admit that this is an unusual way to start. It’s a view of East Street and there’s no bridge. But when the buildings on both sides of the street were occupied by the Derby Co-operative Society, there was a walkway between their supermarket on the left hand side to the Central Hall building on the right.

When I was growing up in the late 60s / early 70s I loved this bridge, as crossing it meant that I was about to get my hands on some more Lego. The walkway (albeit closed to the public for many years) certainly survived into the 1990s and possibly later. I’ve found it rather difficult to find photographs of the walkway, but here’s a picture of it taken in 1988.

2. Exeter Bridge

This bridge crosses the Derwent directly into the heart of the city and was on the main route in until the inner ring road was built in the 1970s. It incorporates four commemorative copper plaques to the Derby luminaries Erasmus Darwin, Herbert Spencer, William Hutton and John Lombe – one on each pillar. This is the view of the bridge from the Riverside Gardens, with the newly restored Council House and re-purposed Magistrate’s Court buildings on the left hand side.

Exeter bridge, Derby, 14-02-2015… and this is the fifth copper plaque, marking its re-opening in 1931.

Exeter bridge plaque, Derby, 14-02-2015

3. The Cathedral Green Footbridge

The newest of my five bridges was opened in 2009 and is in the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage site, next to the Silk Mill. It’s a swing bridge, although I’ve never personally witnessed it being opened. The design is striking and the views it provides of All Saints’ Cathedral and the Silk Mill are excellent.

Cathedral Green footbridge and Silk Mill, Derby, 14-02-2015Catherdral Green footbridge, Derby, 14-02-2015

4. St Mary’s Bridge

Also in the World Heritage area is St Mary’s bridge. The current bridge dates from the 18th century, though there has been one on this site for centuries. The most interesting feature of the bridge is the medieval chapel, restored in 1930 and is one of six surviving bridge chapels in England. There’s also an adjoining 17th century chapel house. It’s desperately sad that the design of the inner ring road now makes it impossible to fully appreciate the chapel and house from the outside.

St Mary's Bridge, Derby, 14-02-2015St. Mary's Bridge Chapel, Derby, 14-02-2015

5. Friar Gate Bridge

Built by Andrew Handyside & Co in the 1870s for the Great Northern Railway, the bridge that dominates this Georgian street became redundant in 1967 after the line closed. It’s main claim to fame is that it appears to have been responsible for inspiring the Flanagan and Allen song “Underneath the Arches”. Unfortunately it seems to be in a poor state of repair at the moment, despite the promise made by Derby’s council in 1970 when it was acquired by them for £1.

Firar Gate Birdge, Derby, 14-02-2015

(*) as distinct from being a blogger who writes mainly about the Liberal Democrats!

 

Feb 14 2015

Tired

It’s been a busy week at work. While I’m still fit (according to my last set of blood tests in December), I am starting to feel progressively more tired. This week’s schedule meant that Monday and Tuesday were busy days and also that I wasn’t able to get home until around 1am on Wednesday Thursday.

That would have all been probably all right, but getting up at 6am on Thursday to make sure that I got to a customer meeting on time that morning just about finished me off. I got home at 2pm and went to bed. Even after a long sleep, Friday was difficult (though it was spent in the office catching up and preparing for next week) and I’ve only just started to feel “normal” again this morning. I need to listen to my body a little more closely I think, but it’s been useful to find out where my limits are currently.

I go for my next set of blood tests next week and will see my consultant again on the 25th. At the moment next week also looks busy, but somewhat more manageable than the one that’s just passed.

 

Feb 08 2015

Benchmarking the original Raspberry Pi Model B

Yesterday, I used the FORTRAN double precision Whetstone benchmark to assess the new Raspberry Pi 2. The results are rather impressive.

For the sake of completeness, I spent this morning dusting off my original RPi, installing the same operating system (Raspbian) and compiler (gfortran) to repeat the test.

Double Precision Whetstone Benchmark Results, RPi 1 Model B The result – an average of 150,962 KIPS over 10 runs of 100,000 loops, compared with 276,369 on a single core for the RPi 2. Which on this single, somewhat flawed (albeit interesting) benchmark, makes the RPi 2 around 1.8 times faster than my original model B, or 7.2 times faster across all four cores.

 

Feb 07 2015

Benchmarking the Raspberry Pi 2

When I saw that the Raspberry Pi 2 had been launched earlier on this week, I immediately decided that I had to have one. My original Raspberry Pi had been slowly gathering dust on the study windowsill for a couple of years, largely because my initial enthusiasm for it had waned rather quickly. It was simply too slow and unresponsive for me to be able to do anything very interesting with it.

However, my experience so far with the RPi 2 is making me wonder why I bothered to buy a new PC towards the end of last year. For the princely sum of £29.93 (delivered) from CPC (plus an additional £16 for a 5V, 2.1A power supply – the 700mA phone charger that worked with my original model B simply wasn’t up to the job), it’s more than adequate for programming tasks.

The RPi 2 even runs a web browser sensibly, which is more than I ever really managed to achieve with my first RPi. (Geek note: this post was written on my RPi 2, using the Chromium browser).

But just how good is it? A number of people have been testing its performance by playing old computer games on emulators, but that seemed a little bit too subjective for my tastes.

So instead, I installed a FORTRAN compiler and dug out a copy of the double-precision Whetstone benchmarking program(+). An average of 10 runs over 100,000 loops each (on a single core of the quad-core ARM v7 processor of the RPi 2) gave me a result of 276,369 double Whetstone KIPS (thousands of instructions per second).

Double Precision Whetstone Benchmark Results, RPi 2

It’s only when you dig out the historical results for this benchmark(*) that you start to realise how astounding this performance figure is. For example, the VAX 11/750 that I used for the first time at Warwick University in 1982 delivered around 510 KIPS of performance and was typically shared by two dozen people at once. At particularly busy times you could wait for whole minutes simply for the text editor to start.

The Prime 9955 that was the mainstay of development work when I joined my first company, PAFEC, delivered 3,450 KIPS, according to its 1986 benchmark results. I still have my original contract of employment, which stated that staff who worked on “the computer” were encouraged to adopt some rather unusual working hours. The Silicon Graphics Indigo2, the workstation that everyone wanted to use in 1993 as it was a byword for high performance computing, clocked up a very respectable 90,000 KIPS.

It’s only when you get to the release of Pentium II based PCs in 1998 that you start to see similar performance figures to that of a single core of the RPi 2. And you need at least a Celeron M or Pentium IV based PC from 2003 or 2004 to match the performance across all four cores.

I suppose I really ought to knock the dust off my original RPi and see how it performs with the same code …

Update, 8th February 2015I’ve now repeated the benchmark on my original model B.

(+) The Whetstone benchmark seems particularly appropriate, as like the Raspberry Pi, it was created in the UK.

(*) I’m indebted to Roy Longbottom and his collection of benchmarks for the historical performance information referenced in this post. The documents covering the development of the Whetstone (and other benchmarks) he’s curated are a fascinating glimpse into one aspect of the history of computing over the last 60 years or so.

 

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