Posts Tagged Mirror

How to inflate figures and scandalise people

A number of papers this week (Daily Express*, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph, Wales on Sunday) have all carried the same story, claiming that, in the words of the Daily Mail, “NHS officials pay £32 for gluten-free bread that costs £2.25 in the shops”.

Though it’s not impossible that a big organisation like the NHS has inefficient bread-buying schemes, it seems a bit unlikely that something as widely prescribed as gluten-free bread is being bought for more than 10 times its shelf price. So where did the figures come from?

Well, it looks like the story comes from this Welsh government data about prescriptions. Sure enough, if you look it says that the 27 prescriptions of a particular type of bread, Lifestyle Gluten-Free High-Fibre Brown, cost £32.27 each.** But doctors aren’t prescribing one loaf of bread at a time.

The important column is the one marked “quantity”, which tells you how many grams of bread were prescribed. For Lifestyle Gluten-Free High-Fibre Brown, doctors prescribed a total of 123,600 grams. Divided between the 27 people, that’s 4,577 grams each, or about 11 loaves of bread per person. So that £32.27 figure is the cost of buying 11 loaves of bread, not 1, and as the Welsh government points out, it works out at around £2.82 per loaf.  This is still slightly more than the cheapest online cost of the bread, so I assume there is still room to bring prescription costs down, but NHS Wales is certainly not spending more than £30 on a loaf of bread.

* Turns out James Delingpole writes for The Express too. Huh.

** If you want to check for yourself, it’s in section G-O under the name “Lifestyle_G/f H/fbre Bread Brown”.

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A bumper crop of nonsense equations in the Mirror

This piece is only in the print version of the Mirror as far as I can tell, but it’s so daft I can’t let it go. Equations! Loads of them! All bollocks!

First:

Tractors:

q = (vcvs)ks

This formula, produced by University College London and the Green Flag breakdown company, tells you how long you spend stuck behind a tractor, where q is the time spent, vc is the speed of your car, vs is the speed of the tractor and ks is the number of tractors you meet per journey.

The trick to explaining why this is bollocks is something called dimensional analysis. Basically, since we’re trying to work out how long we spend stuck in traffic, the result should be a time. Instead however, we have speed, measured in miles per hour – ie, distance per time – times number of tractors. This is not a time – we’ve still got that pesky distance in there which we haven’t got rid of. Therefore, this formula is nonsense.

The perfect bacon sandwich

N = C + {fb(cm) . fb(tc)} + fb (Ts) + fc . ta

This came from Leeds University, who reportedly spent 1000 hours tasting 700 variations of bacon sandwiches to make this formula. All I’ll say is that that works out at 1 hour 25 minutes per sandwich. They must be very slow eaters.

The formula itself, as described by the Mirror, are meaningless. Those fbs and fcs are “functions of the bacon type”, which are never explained. cm represents condiments (if you can tell me what “7 + ketchup” equals, you’re a better mathematician than me), tc is cooking time, Ts is temperature, ta is the time taken to fill the sandwich and C is the force (in Newtons) required to break the bacon.

Since we don’t know what fb and fc is, I haven’t a clue how the units work, but if fb can be a function of time, temperate or condiment, this must be a very versatile function!

The perfect cheese sandwich

W = [ 1 + ((bd)/6.5) - s + ((m - 2c)/2) + ((v + p)/7t)] (100 + l/100)

Now, at least the dimensions more or less work in this one, from Bristol University and, apparently, a cheese company. This tells you, supposedly, the thickness of cheese in the perfect sandwich (in millimetres). b is the bread thickness, d is the “dough modifier”, s is the thickness of the of the margarine, m is the thickness of the mayonaise (and c is the creaminess of the mayonaise), v is the thickness of the tomato, p is the thickness of the pickle, t is the tanginess of the filling and l is the lettuce thickness.

If you look at this one, at least all the things that are being added together are thicknesses (except for the “creaminess”), so our end product is also a thickness!

Of course, it doesn’t say how you assess “dough modifier”, “creaminess”, or “tanginess”. The company’s website has an online calculator (it’s viral marketing, so I’m not sute I want to link it, but, err, here it is, just don’t buy cheese from it!) which does the equation for you, but you never actually have to use the creaminess modifier, so that’s no help.

The best way to open champagne

P = T/4.5 +1

This is actually a good one. P is the pressure in the bottle in atmospheres, T is the temperature of the champagne in centigrade. It’s only an approximation, so it falls apart at very high or low temperatures, but around room temperature, it actually works alright. At 4.5 degrees, the pressure is 2 atmospheres, at 9 degrees it’s 3 atmospheres, and at 18 degrees it’s 5 atmospheres. This tallies pretty well with the figures in the Mirror and on this site. One point for the Mirror!

The perfect joke

x = (fl + no)/p

Ah, back to form. Supposedly, x is the funniness of the joke, f is the funniness of the punchline, l is the length of build up, n is the number of times the comedian falls over, o is the “ouch factor” and p is the number of puns.

One obvious problem: if your joke has no puns, p = 0, so you’re dividing by zero and your joke is infinitely funny!

One other obvious problem: according to this, longer jokes are ALWAYS funnier than shorter ones. So according to this formula:

“A man walks into a bar. Ow.”

Is nowhere near as funny as.

“A man walks down the street. It’s a bright early summer’s day, and a few clouds scud across the afternoon sun. Thirsty, he decides to go for a drink and walks into a bar. Ow.”

One more obvious problem: increasing the ouch factor supposedly ALWAYS makes the joke funnier. So if the comedian trips over, that’s slightly funny. If he gets hit with a frying pan and keels over, that’s funnier still. And if he falls out of a third story window, lands on the concrete below and breaks both his legs, his pelvis and three vertebrae, that should be utterly hilarious!

So in other words, if you were to use this to produce the perfect joke: a man tells a longwinded monologue – but with no puns – while repeatedly suffering debilitating injuries. Since delaying the punchline increases funniness too, the punchline should NEVER come. Monologue, no puns, no punchline, repeated torture. Sounds like my sort of thing!

The perfect amount of gravy for Sunday lunch

(W – (D/S))/D x 100

Where W is the weight of the uncooked food, D is the weight of the cooked food, S is the amount your food shrinks.

I can kind of see where they’re coming from on this, but what the formula is trying to do, basically, is tell us how much water the food has lost during cooking (though I can’t make sense of the dimensions here – I don’t know whether it’s telling us the weight of the gravy, the amount of gravy, or what). This isn’t the same as the perfect amount of gravy. For example, chips lose very little weight during cooking, but if anyone tells me that chips shouldn’t be absolutely smothered in gravy then that is CRAZY TALK.

Pulling a cracker

O = 11 x C/L + 5 x Q

Where O is the angle(?) C is the is the circumference of the cracker, L is the length, and Q is the quality of the cracker (1, 2, 3).

The dimensions work in this one, but I can’t really make any sense of it. The better quality your cracker is, the lower the angle you pull it at? I guess it’s meant to say that thicker crackers need a stronger pull. I’ll give this one a maybe.

Anyway, everyone knows the secret is to twist the opponent’s end of the cracker before you give it to them.

The perfect holiday beach

(A x W) + 2[E x C x V] + v[F x S] / (T + TC)

Sigh.

A is the quality of the beach, W is the weather, E is the entertainment, C is the culture, V is the activities, F is the familiarity, S is the shopping, T is the time to destination and TC is the cost of the holiday as a percent of your income.

Great. And if anyone can tell me what entertainment times culture times activities is, or why, if all of these are so subjective, the Mirror can just crown the Tuscan Rivera the best, I’d be delighted.

(And if familiarity makes a beach better, are you not allowed to go to new beaches?)

The perfect sandcastle

OW = 0.125 x S

OW is the amount of water, S is the amount of sand.

This barely counts as equation. It literally just says “use 8 parts sand to one part water”. Moving on.

The perfect neckline

O = NP(20C+B)/75

O is the “naughtiness”, N is the fraction of nipple showing, P is the percent of exposed frontal area, C is the cup size and B is the bust measurement in inches. If O is greater than 100 then the neckline is “obscene”.

Well, the most obvious problem with this is simple: have you got big breasts? Congratulations, you’re automatically more “obscene” than a smaller breasted woman wearing the exact same outfit. That’s a great message to be sending out, Mirror!

Secondly, there’s that “nipple fraction” parameter. If the nipple fraction is 0, the naughtiness is also 0. So if you walked around completely topless, save for a pair of pasties, that would be completely prim and proper.

In fact, even if you walked around topless, so N = 1, P = 100, you would need to be at least a 36 B or 34 C for that to count as “obscene”! (and that’s ignoring the fact that band size over-estimates the underbust measurement by several inches)

Conclusion

Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth getting worked up about these things. After all, it’s all a bit of fun (and advertising. Always advertising).

The thing is, though, this is why people hate maths. When people think of maths, they don’t think of the really interesting stuff – like the beauty of fractals or using the power of statistics to win thousands on the lottery. They think of dull formulas, spending hours in school plugging numbers into them and rearranging them without ever really understanding them.

When done properly, a formula shouldn’t just be a bunch of unintelligable letters, without any deeper meaning. A formula should be able to speak just as loudly as words do.

E=mc2, for example, isn’t just a formula to plug numbers into. It also tells us that energy, E, and mass, m, are one and the same. You can destroy mass to create energy – as happens in a nuclear bomb – and you can use energy to create mass – so as you go faster, you get heavier (though sadly this is only noticeable when you get close to the speed of light, c).

That’s a lot of information packed in three letters!

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Hangovers, statistics and a dodgy hookup

It’s one of the oldest clichés in the book. You go to a party, get completely hammered, and wake up in bed with a dodgy PR firm.

Today’s ill-advised hookup is a threesome between The Express, The Mirror and a non-alcoholic drinks company called Sweet Lady Beverages, who claim that “the average Briton will spend five years of their life with a hangover“.

Before we look at the article itself, a quick sanity check. Life expectancy in the UK is roughly 80 years, and it’s unlikely people are going to experience hangovers before the age of about 15 or so. So, at maximum, that gives the average Brit about 65 drinking years. If the Express‘s statistics are true, we spend 8% of our adult lives hung over – we would spend more time hungover than we would eating. It’s amazing anyone gets anything done.

The article goes on to say that:

[Britons] will suffer the ill effects for a whole day – usually a Sunday – at least once a week between the ages of 21 and 38.

Bear in mind that this an average. According to Sweet Lady Beverages, the average person is hung over every week until the age of 40, and those hangovers last all day. That sounds a tiny bit excessive. After all, one – much more scientific – study found that having even just one hangover per month over an extended period is linked to a major increase (around 2.36 times) in heart attack risk.* And yet somehow, we’re not dropping like flies.

As far as I can tell – there’s no information about this survey available on the web outside these two articles – Sweet Lady Beverages simply asked visitors to its site to answer some questions about hangovers. There’s no published methodology; in other words, they don’t say what questions were asked or what precautions they made to make sure they had a fair sample.

For instance, they could have asked

It would certainly explain the odd results they got.

The Sweet Lady Beverage company is quoted by the Express as saying

The message we can take from this is simple – by reducing our alcohol intake we can reduce the amount of time feeling wretched.

Oddly on-message for a company selling alcohol-free drinks, wouldn’t you say?

* I can’t find many good scientific studies of hangovers. A lot of them are rather hamstrung by the fact that surveys usually take place in university, and therefore involve university students – not very representative of the drinking habits of the wider population! Nevertheless, this paper suggests that only 15% of the population have more than hangover per month.

Edit: The Daily Mail has now picked up the story too.

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A survey? How romantic!

Blah blah romance is dead, say The Express and The Mirror. Why?

Only nine per cent of those surveyed had ever sent a letter – and most of those were over 50 – while more than two-thirds prefer to say “I love you” by text.

An additional 24 per cent would rather send an email to express their feelings, while 14 per cent said they would post a message on their lover’s Facebook wall.

In further shocking news, very few couples surveyed courted via telegraph, and fewer still stood on hilltops furiously waving sweet nothings in semaphore. The Express quotes relationship expert Jo Barnett saying this shows that “[people] want an instant relationship with instant physical contact, they feel they’ve not got enough time to romance their partner” rather than the more immediately obvious conclusion that people are just sending fewer letters in general.

If the love letter is dead, then it seems male chivalry is also on its last legs as just four per cent of men said they would send flowers to their partner’s place of work. Only five per cent stand up when their partner stands from the dinner table, while only 12 per cent have booked a surprise weekend away.

This is the same rubbish that comes out every few months; pearl-clutching panic about how “chivalry is dead” (a phrase which appears 49 times on The Mail‘s site, incidentally) when it would be more accurate to say “society’s norms about how men should treat women are (slowly) changing to be less infantilising” (a less snappy headline, I’ll admit). After all, I’m pretty sure if I stood every time my girlfriend left the table, she wouldn’t find that chivalrous but instead rather creepy.

Anyway, I’m sure there was a perfectly valid, academic reason this survey was done, right?

The study was to mark the DVD release of romantic comedy Going the Distance.

Going the Distance is released on Blu-ray Triple Play and DVD today, from Warner Home Video.

Oh.

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Is dodgy neuroscience in journalists’ nature or their nurture?

(Hat-tip to This Wicked Day for the link, and for pointing out that I can’t spell)

Another story exclusive to all papers: The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Daily Express have all churned out a story based on this morning’s Today (two parts, sound only).* The show was guest edited by Colin Firth, who decided to use this as an opportunity to commission some research into whether political views are visible in brain structure.

The results are fairly interesting – though the only place they’ve so far been published is on the Today show’s blog, which means I can’t really comment on them in any detail. As far as I can tell, this is what they found: people who self-identified as left-wing or liberal were found to generally have a thicker anterior cingulate – the part of the brain believed to deal with empathy and decision making – while people who described themselves as right-wing conservative had a larger right-hand amygdala – the structure which seems to be do with anxiety and higher emotion processing. There seems to be some confusion on the Today show blog about whether it’s a “strong correlation” or “a weak but statistically significant correlation”.

The problem is that, just as with the so-called “liberal gene“, there’s nothing here which proves that these structures actually cause people to be left or right wing. For one thing, we don’t know which way the correlation runs; in other words, whether having a larger amygdala causes people to be right wing, or whether being right wing just makes the amygdala grow – or whether there’s something else hidden in the body which affects political views and brain structure.

Secondly, again, just like with the liberal gene, it’s possible that political views are only indirectly linked to brain structure – the fact that the correlation between the two was weak would seem to back this up. For example, if people with a thick anterior cingulate are generally better at empathy, and more empathic people are generally more liberal, then there might be a small correlation between cingulate size and left wing leanings. This would not mean that one causes the other however! It would be perfectly possible for someone with a thin cingulate to be empathic, and for someone with a thick cingulate to be self-centred. Our brain structure isn’t the only thing that affects our personality – nor are our political views driven entirely by our empathy and our anxiety.

* Interestingly, the reliably right wing Mail goes for the self-deprecating headline “Tory voters found to have larger ‘primitive’ lobe in brain” while the similarly leaning Express runs with the exact opposite: “Lefty? Blame the shape of your brain“.

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England stats part 2

Because there were just too many graphs for one post. This time, World Cups and managers.

Today’s papers are full to the brim with questions. Why didn’t England win the World Cup? Was it psychological? Were there too few youngsters on the team? Are young England players improperly trained? Did England play as a team? Is 4-4-2 dead? Should Fabio go?

Unsurprisingly, Capello is not popular in the papers. The Mirror demands “FabiGO” and The Sun‘s headline is simply “It’s time you went, Capello“. The Daily Mail goes further, and somehow suggests that the wealth of Fabio and the team is precisely why England did badly:*

In contrast to England’s only successful manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, who lived in a modest semi in Ipswich and, at the end of his time in charge, was earning just £7,000 a year, Capello has always enjoyed the trappings of the high life, including a vast art collection said to be worth £17million.

Indeed, his convoluted financial affairs brought him to the attention of the Italian tax authorities, though he was never charged with any offence.**

In case you hadn’t guessed, Alf Ramsey was England manager in 1966. Of course, he was also England manager for the 1970 World Cup (in which we fell in the quarter finals) and 1974 World Cup (which we failed to qualify for entirely). And “only successful manager”? Bobby Robson and Terry Venables both took England to the semifinals of a major tournament (1990 World Cup and Euro 1996) and both could have got to the finals if it hadn’t been for bad luck on penalty shootouts. Because that’s what it is. Luck.

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First post, or; how I learned to stop worrying and write a useless blog instead

Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle predicted I'd write this blog

I’ve been a newspaper reader for donkey’s years. And it seems every day, some piece of science coverage finds a new and interesting way to annoy me. Rather than fume inwardly about it (can inward fuming cause cancer? Better check The Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project) any longer, I’m going to write about it! Now let’s see how long I can keep this going for before I go mad/get bored/die.

So let’s kick things off with a little history of science reporting.

The private notes of Robert Boyle – he of Boyle’s law and The Sceptical Chymist – have recently gone on display at the Royal Society, as part of their 350th anniversary celebrations. These particular notes detail Boyle’s visions for the future of science and they do in fact make for quite interesting reading. You can see the full list on The Telegraph‘s site.

This, you might say, is not a story. I could write a list of things I want science to look into, and as long as I make it vague enough, progress will probably have been made in most of those fields in 350 years time. This is Nostradamus stuff – when Boyle writes “a perpetuall light“, perhaps he’s predicting electric lighting. Or perhaps he’s predicting a light that doesn’t require energy (bear in mind this was all written pre-thermodynamics). Whether or not he predicted the future becomes a matter of interpretation; and if you say he did, do the countless others down the ages who predicted flight or long life count as visionaries?

But enough philosophy, let’s have something harder – media studies.*

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