Thursday, 24 September 2009

I phone therefore I am??

I’ve spent the last week buying an Iphone. Why on earth would that take a week? First I went to Carphone Warehouse, mostly because the local one has its own carpark. They have none in stock – buy it on the web they said.

I would have gone to the Apple store in Birmingham but they only sell the pay as you go version. So I get on the web and try to buy it from O2. I wade through all the menus and get to the final button and it refuses to sell it to me, saying that there is a problem with my credit.

Panic. Has someone hacked my account? What can possibly have happened? I have this bank thing that sends you a text message if someone makes a credit check on the account – no message comes. The mystery deepens. I phone the bank, ordinary phoning, not Iphoning. The bank say there is nothing wrong with my credit.

I get back on the O2 web site and try to phone them. The number on the site gets me a number unobtainable message, so I Phone, I won’t repeat the joke, you’ve got it by now, and BT tell me it’s not one of their numbers and anyway seeing as I moved my phone account to Tesco I should phone Tesco. They don’t actually say Piss off, but it’s as near as a tape recorder can get.

Tesco at least give me another number for O2 and they tell me that the problem lies with Equifax, who they use to get credit reports. So I phone Equifax, who tell me I don’t exist, Nice of them to say so. Has it crossed their mind that someone must be talking to them? Perhaps they do special personality tests in order to make sure that the operator is not spooked when they find themselves talking to a person who does not exist.

I try explaining that I do exist, I have a CBE; the Queen doesn’t usually give those out to people who don’t exist, it’s so hard for her to hang the thing around your neck when you don’t exist, hand to shake hands too. Actually in the same batch of emails that include the one from Equifax saying that I don’t exist, I have one from Who’s Who congratulating me on being in the latest edition, in fact I think I’ve been in it for the last decade. Obviously Equifax don’t consult Who’s Who when they decide who isn’t who.

It takes two more days to narrow the problem down to the postcode address files; our house is in twice, once as Stonebow Farm and the other as Stonebow Farmhouse. That appears to be the problem, when their clever software puts profiles together from many different sources some of them have one version and some have the other, so the computer can’t decide what to do and goes for the simple solution of deciding that I don’t exist.

I did eventually persuade O2 to phone the bank that issued the card I was using and now I have the Iphone.

Back to Equifax, I figured I had better sort out the mess with them in case any other misguided retailer uses them. Their web site allows you to verify who you are by sending them copies of things like utility bills and passports. Their web site is the slowest I’ve had to contend with for a long time. It timed out or crashed on me six times before I did eventually get the documents loaded. It probably only does that to people who don’t exist, they’re hardly likely to complain are they.

They have another cunning trick, part way through the routine they give you a code number and tell you to phone them. Just as well I have an ordinary phone, it must be tough on any non-persons trying to get their first phone.

The first thing that happens when you phone is you get a friendly message telling you that the easiest way to contact them is to go to their web site, you know, the one that just told me to phone the number that’s telling me to use the web site.

I remained calm and decided that this was just a standard promotional message, not some twisted irony. The phone gives you a bunch of menus, you know the sort of stuff, ‘If you are fed up with the idiocy of this company press one.’ ‘If you really object to being charged by the minute to listen to this rubbish, press two.’

None of the menus appear to relate to the instruction from the web site. You would have thought there would be something saying, ‘If our web site has told you to phone, press three.’ No such luck. It took several goes around their menus and a few dead ends and one spell when it waited so long that I gave up. The blasted message about using the web site is repeated between most of the menus. It is obviously a nice little earner, to charge by the minute and include plenty of messages that will render the client apoplectic, so they collapse in a heap leaving the phone connected and running up bills.

Fortunately we non-persons are made of sterner stuff. I did eventually get it all done and now I exist. Next problem is to correct the rubbish on their site. The local council manages to send me an email telling me that I am on the electoral register, but Equifax thinks I’m not. My bank collects a mortgage payment each month and sends me annual accounts, but Equifax says I don’t have a mortgage.

I wonder if I could get Equifax to tell the bank to stop sending me bills?

Monday, 21 September 2009

This old house

Why no blog for such a long time? It all does back to the floods in 2007, when the water flooded almost all of the garden, my pottery and the garage and nearly came into the house. It flooded the cellar and ever since then we have had a damp patch at the foot of the staircase, the cellar is just underneath there. It’s had two years to dry out and still looks damp so I decided that the floor had better be dug up to see what was going on.

This house was built sometime between 1820 and about 1850 and probably built in pieces because you can see a joint halfway along the house where the second phase started. More was added in 1970, but that’s another story.

I think farm workers who knew very little about building must have knocked it up, every time I take plaster off or dig anything up I find more horrors. After removing about a ton of old quarry tiles and earth I found the root of the problem. See the picture.

The staircase comes down towards the wall of the cellar underneath it but it never actually gets there. There’s a gap of about 4 inches that was filled by a chunk of wood (now pretty rotten). When the water came up in the cellar it would have flowed into that gap and soaked the wood, hence the damp patch. The wood in question is that piece under the pick axe

So instead of blogging I have been digging, taking out all the old muck and filling it back in with a new damp course, some foam insulation and a ton of concrete. It’s a new kind of keep fit. I’ve lost three pounds and hopefully there won’t be a damp patch any more, well, once the concrete has dried out completely.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Non random thoughts about the BBC

Yet again the BBC does something awful to the English language. What? I hear you say – surely that’s not possible, they are the bastion of good English and pronunciation. Possibly true, unless numbers and numerical concepts are involved.

The word that’s being wrecked this week is random. I heard a trailer for a programme called ‘Random Edition’. Apparently each week they are going to take a random edition of a newspaper and go back over the stories to explore the historical significance. The first random edition is September 4, 1939. So on the 70th anniversary of war breaking out they are expecting me to believe that they have managed to pick out the day after war was declared at random from all the other days they might have picked in the last seventy years. The odds of getting any particular day in that time period are more than 20,000 to 1

What random means is that all the possible choices are equally likely. I’m prepared to bet that all of the editions that are picked in this series will turn out to be momentous days in some way or another. I haven’t seen any publicity material about the programme, other than hearing a flyer for the first episode, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we happened – at ‘random’ - to get the day Kennedy was shot, the day the Berlin wall fell and other days like that.

Of course I’m cheating a bit because this is not the first series. The last series featured Lindberg’s first flight across the Atlantic, the first performance of Handel’s royal firework music, Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, and the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. Hardly random events!

In my somewhat biased way – I’ve spent my life involved with epidemiology after all – I think this is part of a pattern of lack of numeracy at the BBC. Twice in the last five years I’ve heard items on the Today programme say something along the lines that in properly conducted randomised trials of prayer to alleviate sickness, that half of the attempts seem to work. The protagonist for prayer then cheerfully says that if it works half the time there must be something in it. This like saying that if I toss a coin and get it right half of the time then I must be a clairvoyant or fortune teller. The stupidity of the statement ought to be obvious to everyone yet on neither occasion did John Humphreys challenge the speaker, presumably because he has no understanding of what a randomised trial is, or how it works

When we try out new drugs the concept of randomisation is important, we usually divide the patients in the trial into two or more groups that are selected at random before treatment. That means that every patient has an equal likelihood of getting the new drug or of getting some other drug or treatment that we want to compare the new one with. That way, when we add up the results of the different groups, if there is a difference between the treatments, we have good grounds for thinking that the difference is caused by the treatments and not by some characteristic of the patients or their circumstance. If they are really chosen at random then the samples are much less likely to be biased and the results are more likely to be true.

If we misuse the word random so that the public think that a random date just means an interesting date, picked so that more people will listen to the programme, then how on earth will we convince them that treatments that have been shown to be worthless in randomised trials are not worth taking, or hazards shown to be dangerous are best avoided?

Our whole society is becoming hopeless at making sense of risk, and part of that comes from lack of understanding of the mathematical concepts. I think it’s time that the media faced up to their responsibility in this.

It’s also true that advertisers have a lot to answer for. How do we let the lottery, which is supposed to be random, get away with saying ‘It could be you’? OK I guess it is true that it could be you, but it would be more honest to say ‘It’s really very very unlikely to be you.’

If I invented a new drug that had a one in a million chance of making you better then I’m sure I wouldn’t be allowed to say ’This could cure you’, but such a statement would be just as honest as the advertising for the lottery, it gives a lot of money to good causes. What I object to is a steady process whereby the population is deskilled in assessing risk.

The consequence is that people smoke, drink and feed themselves to an early death. I don’t mind if they really do make an informed choice to do that, but if the BBC and other media keep wrecking any chance that the population will understand statistical concepts then informed choice is very unlikely.

No doubt someone will point out that the BBC does produce one programme (‘More or Less’ on Radio 4) which is about making sense of these concepts, but by putting it in a separate box and labelling it as the programme that is about numbers they pretty much signal that this is the one to switch off. What is needed is a change in culture at the BBC so that they are as scrupulous about statistical and mathematical truths as they are about other issues in the integrity of newsgathering and reporting. That is obviously harder to bring off than dragging in a few geeks to make one programme a week about numbers.

Why am I banging on about this? I think it’s a public health issue. If no one understands risk, then too many people will die and be disabled by diseases they could have avoided, and public health professionals like me will be forever labelled as killjoys for trying to legislate our way to a healthier society. If no one understands risks then risky things have to be banned in order to make people safe. In the long run that is a bad idea, it makes us all even less able to deal with the next risk to come along.

A long and happy life does not happen by accident – it’s not random.