Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Category: Society (page 1 of 3)

The economics of kids’ birthday parties

Fantastic story out today (Mon, Jan 19) about a parent being invoiced for a kids’ party no-show. You can read the Guardian’s take here, and the BBC here.

The obvious reaction is to dismiss the invoice sender as a complete nutcase, and the no-show parents as arses for going to the press.

But pick it apart for a moment, and there’s a fundamental misunderstanding. Continue reading

Forget Harry and Amelia – we are naming our kids with more variation than ever

I have a big interest in this one: I am about to be a father for the 4th time. Finding a name is tough when you’ve used up a whole bunch already, and you have to avoid clashes with friends and family with similarly-aged children.

So the Office of National Statistics baby names for 2012 – released on Monday – is a data treasure trove. What’s up, what’s down, what to avoid.

But in all the hoopla over the top names (Harry and Amelia), there is an important trend playing out. In the UK, we are getting far more diverse in how we name our kids.

There are several ways to measure this, using the ONS data that goes back to 1996.

One is to look at the number of babies that are given the top name. From a peak of nearly 11,000 for boys in 1996 (the first year of available data) and 9,600 for girls in 1998, the top name has dropped to around 7,000 for boys, and until 2012, around 5,000 for girls. Ameila, the top name in 2012, has bucked the trend, with around 7,000.

But does that mean that we are simply spreading names out further among the favourites? It seems not. The ONS also lists all names that are given to three or more children in each year. The pool of names that aren’t so weird or odd as to be completely unique is rising, from under 4,000 for boys in 1996 to over 6,000 now; and under 5,000 for girls to nearly 8,000 in the same period.

(The Independent reported that there were 28,000 different boys’ names and over 36,000 different girls’ names in 2012 – which means there are a HUGE mass of names that aren’t listed by ONS which have just one or two occurences. Roughly 28,000 names have one or two occurences – out of 350,000 births, that’s a lot. But I’ve worked from the ONS dataset which gives three or more instances of each name.)

That could be partially explained by simply more overall births – and after a drop to 2002, the birth rate has indeed picked up.

But we can easily factor that in: the average frequency of names for both boys and girls (ie the total births divided by the number of unique names used 3 or more times) is going down consistently over the period.

Equally, we can look at the number of times the top name is used as a percentage of the total births for boys and girls – and this is also heading down, with over 3 per cent of boys being given the top name in 1996, to under 2 per cent now. The girls top name has fluctuated more, but the trend is similar.

The divergence between the results for girls and boys shows that we have always been more creative with girls names – but the diversification trend is happening for both genders.

Why is this happening?

One answer may be immigration. As the UK gets more people from other countries, so it will get a greater diversity of names. This explains the higher number of unique names.

But that doesn’t explain the rapid decline in the number of times the top name is used. That implies we are getting more creative.

And in fact, if we look at the number of times the 20th name is given, and the 100th, there is an interesting pattern. For both girls and boys, the 20th name is also declining in popularity, but not as dramatically as for the top name. But the 100th name is generally getting more popular over time. That implies we are searching for more interesting names – the 100th most popular name is not exactly mainstream.

How far can this go? For boys, a lot further, clearly, as boys names lag behind girls in terms of diversity. Overall, there may be no end to it. You can imagine almost limitless variations on some names, as well as ever more exotic places and made-up names. Then there are hypenated versions: there were 19 Lilly-somethings alone last year. And there are parents perhaps trying to get their kids noticed by alphabetical means – there are 69 girls names in the 2012 data that start with two As, compared to 17 in 1996. And there were 125 girls names starting with Z in 2012 – compared to 74 in 1996.

Parents want their kids to stand out, it seems.

Data for all charts from ONS

The royal baby: is the US that interested?

Any piece about the interest around the world in the new royal baby, now named as George, invariably asks why the US cares so much about the UK royal family.

But if web searching is any guide, the US is way less interested than we think. Google trends regional results for the search term “royal baby” show that the US is down in 8th place, behind Italy, for relative search volumes in the last week.

The UK is top, as you would expect. But the rest of that top ten I would not have guessed. Some of the Commonwealth countries (Australia, Canada) – maybe. But Ireland, Singapore and Switzerland in the top 10? Nah.

Here’s the chart:

Top regions for “royal baby”  Search volume
United Kingdom 100
New Zealand 68
Ireland 64
Canada 61
Australia 55
South Africa 50
Italy 46
United States 44
Singapore 18
Switzerland 16

Electing the leader of 1.3bn

I’ve written before about the similarity, in pure number terms, between the Catholic church and China – same number of citizens / devotees (1.3bn), similar number of rulers (boils down to around 300).

The recent election of Francis I and of Xi Jinping brought it home again – but the comparison between the processes couldn’t be starker.

The Chinese rubber-stamp of Xi was ostensibly transparent – we know the number of votes. The Papal Conclave, on the other hand, is a mystery.

According to the Washington Post, Xi received 2,952 out of 2,956 votes cast by the National Party Congress – three abstentions and one brave dissident.

The Papal Conclave, on the other hand, had 115 electors – of which at least two-thirds, or 77 cardinals, were needed to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope. But the ballots are burned, so we will never know any margin of victory, or how the voting progressed over the five rounds until the majority was gained.

So we have on one hand a process that is ostensibly transparent, but a total stitch-up – Xi has been leader-elect for years; and on the other other, a perfectly democratic, lobbying process that is utterly secure and opaque, within a confined theocracy cum-oligarchy.

It might not be perfect, but I know which I’d prefer to be a part of.

Kidnap and piracy: is the world getting safer?

Yes, maybe…

It would be nice to think that the world is a safer place. It certainly wasn’t in 2012 for journalists, who died in record numbers. But in two categories, it looks like the peak may have passed.

Kidnapping and piracy are two very different activities, but both are crimes with (in almost all cases) a very economic motive. In contrast, terrorism and other acts of violence are often ends in themselves. Whereas kidnapping and piracy are purely about money.

So when times are tight, we might expect them to go up – they are fairly drastic measures, although with potentially high rewards.

In recent years, piracy has become a big story, especially in the Gulf of Aden near Somalia, where many incidents have occurred. However, there have been reports recently that piracy is declining – when Somali pirate Mohamed Abdi Hassan called a press conference (yes, a pirate press conference) to say he was retiring earlier this month, that was seen as a watershed moment.

In fact, according to the IMB piracy reports, piracy hasn’t been this low since the 2005-08 period.

What about kidnapping? In the Philippines, there have been reports that in 2012 it has declined. And worldwide, according to the Start database, they are falling too – the data only goes to the end of 2011.

Here’s the chart. It looks like the peak year is 2010. But the 2012 kidnapping figures might change that.


Occupy London: the Finsbury Square mess left behind

Whatever you think of the Occupy London movement, they certainly know how to leave their mark. I took this picture on Friday June 15. It was a bright morning in the City of London, but several people stopped and stared with me at the fenced-off quagmire that is Finsbury Square. This used to be one of the few decent green spaces in the City. It looks like a tsunami rolled through town.

I’m not quite sure how the camp worked – it seemed to have rules and regulations of a sort. There was a sign up that read “This isn’t a protest, it’s a process“. Clearly that ‘process’ doesn’t involve clearing up after yourself. The protesters were evicted, but that hardly seems to be an excuse as they had two week’s notice. A rather pathetic legacy.

The camp moved to Hampstead Heath, one of London’s truly great open spaces, yet away from the focal point of the City, but thankfully was closed down. The whole movement risks becoming irrelevant, irresponsible and divisive amongst those who might support it – if it hasn’t already.

John Terry vs Chris Huhne, Fred Goodwin vs Johann Hari: why it pays to wait

I can’t help thinking about four recent falls from grace. In essence, two are about awards, the other two about pre-emptive punishment. In all cases, we could benefit from being less hasty. I’ll explain why.

Let’s start with pre-emptive punishment. John Terry was stripped of the England captaincy while pending an investigation over racist abuse. Chris Huhne quit the cabinet following charges over his wife taking speeding points for him.

In these cases, the alleged crimes are totally different, but the principle is the same. Should someone step down from high office (the cabinet, the captain of English football) before their case is heard? And in both instances, the MP and player can remain just that. Why not go further – if they are not acceptable to lead the team, should they even be in it? If Huhne is not fit for cabinet, should he represent his constituents in Parliament?

Yet it was over the Terry case, the more morally worrisome and noxious case, and over an individual with prior bad behaviour (violence, infidelity), that Fabio Capello, England manager resigned. Capello said it was unfair to pre-judge the case. And surely, he has a point? If Terry is innocent, will the FA give him back the captaincy? About as likely as Capello managing England again.

Terry may be an odious person, certainly. But this is all the more reason to not give him the captaincy in the first place.

Which brings me neatly to getting things right in the first place.

Fred Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood. Johann Hari was forced to give back his Orwell prize for journalism.

In both cases, it seems the witch-hunt was hugely enjoyable for the press and public alike. Goodwin is an unrepentant, apparently unpleasant banker. Hari is a delusional journalist, protected by the Independent who should have sacked him when his dishonesty came to light.

In both cases, their prizes inflated their egos and should not have been given. Neither man can be blamed for accepting. If you are a multi-millionaire banker dealmaker, or a fêted journalist, darling of the left, a gong is exactly what you think you should be getting.

And yes, in both cases, a few checks would have made all the difference. Did Hari’s article stand up to scrutiny? It fell over pretty fast, as soon as a light was shone on his sources. Why give knighthoods to sitting CEOs? Why not wait and see if their deals work out, or if they bring a bank (and the country) to its knees?

In all four cases, it pays to wait, check and not jump in. Should Huhne still be a minister? If Terry was a good choice for captain before (he wasn’t), he still would be now. Hari should not have been awarded the Orwell prize; Goodwin should never have got close to a knighthood in the first place.

A banker, a footballer, a politician, a journalist. Very different crimes or charges. These men are problematic, certainly, but our eagerness to award or judge makes the problem far worse.

Big data is underestimating the emerging markets

Consultants and analysts – and bloggers, of course – are keen to tell us how big the world’s data is, and how fast it is growing. We have entered the “zetabyte age”.

But for all the talk of “Big data” and how daunting it all is, I think data levels are going to be far bigger than we estimate now. As far as I can tell, most of the models of data usage look at developed markets, and extrapolate the phenomenal growth in data from use of smartphones, PC usage, companies etc.

But this underestimates the usage of data in the developing world. Many countries are going to run straight through the non-networked, 2G world and join the data-everywhere, cloud-based, streaming world instead. And this has big implications for data.

The EMC Digital Universe infographic (pdf) suggests exabyte growth of the total world data from 1,227 in 2010 to 7,910 in 2015. Although this looks like a huge increase compared to 2005 to 2010, when world data was estimated to go from 130 exabytes to 1,227, the actual rate of growth they predict is slowing, from a factor of 9.4 to 6.4.

Instead, take a look at the McKinsey report into big data (pdf).  On page 103 we can see a rough breakdown of data storage by world region. If we take North America as the target level, that region uses 6.5 petabytes per million people. Run the rest of the world at that level of data usage, and the world total of 6,750 petabytes goes up over 5 times to 37,296 petabytes. See table below.

Now the rest of the world isn’t going to catch the US in the next 5 years in terms of data usage, but you get the idea of the scale of this. China is currently on 0.2 petabytes per million. India is even lower. Working on models of developed countries is fine for now, but the rest of the world will catch up faster, and use far more data. I’d rip up a few of those models and predictions and start again.

Region Petabytes Population (m) (Source: Wolfram Alpha) Petabytes per million people Petabytes assuming North American data usage Percentage change
North America 3,500 538 6.5 3,500 0
Latin America 50 589 0.1 3,832 7,564
Europe 2,000 595 3.4 3,871 94
China 250 1,350 0.2 8,783 3,413
Japan 400 127 3.1 826 107
MENA 200 599 0.3 3,897 1,848
India 50 1,210 0.0 7,872 15,643
Rest of APAC * 300 725 0.4 4,717 1,472

* Rest of Apac population taken from Wikipedia, with Japan, China (incl HK and Macau) and India removed.

How to live dangerously – a book that does statistics a disservice

Being a statistics junkie, a couple of people recommended to me the book How to live dangerously by Warwick Carins. Normally, I would read it, enjoy, and move on. But this book has prompted a mini-review (several years late, but who cares…), because it commits several statistical crimes.

One is that Cairns plays fast and loose with surveys. Surveys here, surveys there. No mention of how many people asked, by which method, or the sources. We can all cherry pick surveys to prove any point we like. A health warning is needed.

Second, Cairns is too casual to dismiss what we don’t know, and uses little data to back up the main thrust of the argument (which I broadly agree with), peppering his prose with “probably”s and “these days”. Example:

In 1970, eight out of ten elementary schoolchildren used to walk to school. In 2007, less than one out of ten did – and they were probably the ones who lived across the road, or whose dads were the school caretakers. Most children these days are driven to school in cars, even if they live just round the corner.


Thirdly, and far worse, it actually uses statistics to deceive, rather than prove a point. The worst offence is comparing the data on child abduction and murder with death from fires.

It is clear that the media make more of the former than the latter – a child killed in a fire is a tragedy that is maybe mentioned in the local news, while an abduction and murder will make national headlines quite often.

But Cairns breaks down the stats by pointing out that in any one year, only 100 or so US children are abducted by strangers, and of those 46 are killed. He then extrapolates that to say that the average child has a 0.00007 per cent chance of this fate, which equates to it taking 1.4m years for a stranger to murder your child if you left him or her unguarded on the street.

Obviously the idea of living for 1.4m years is nonsense, and a cunning way of pointing out our ridiculous fear of this event. But then he points out the relative danger of keeping a child indoors and the risk of fire, to show how foolish we are at stopping children going out.

Not citing which country (I assume the US again) he says “one child dies of [fire in the home] every ten days.”

So he sums up our fears thus (from p46):

So, they go out, and face the 1-in-1.4 million chance of being abducted and murdered. Or they stay in, where one child gets burned to death every ten days.

This is the worst statistical argument I have ever come across. Comparing a 1-in-1.4m chance (which is not the same as 1-in-1.4m years anyway) with one-in-10 days sounds like a logical slam dunk – why on earth would we care about the million chance when every 10 days a child dies in a fire? Except that these are far more similar stats than the way they are presented. Actually, using Cairns’ data, one child is abducted and then murdered every 8 days, compared to a death every 10 days in a fire. Or, put it another way, there are 46 abductions and murders every year in the US compared to roughly 37 fire deaths.

Either Cairns is being appallingly deceptive, or incredibly sloppy and can’t understand the stats himself. Either is hard to forgive in a book that tries to cut through the froth and present our fears and risk in a rational way.

Overall – for a book that cites statistics and tries to uncover our irrational fears, it is sloppy, prejudiced and patronising. It is poorly sourced, and although entertaining, lacks rigour. This is an important topic. It’s a shame that it is treated so badly.

The gender timebomb of India and China: a stab at the numbers

When I visited India in 2003, I was shocked by areas of the countryside where there seemed to be not a young girl in sight. It was all boys, as far as you could see.

When we asked our tour guide about the lack of girls, he scoffed at any suggestion of infanticide or selective abortion. Instead, he told us that women could conceive a boy if they slept on a particular side of their body just after intercourse.

This was a man with a degree, a full education and seemingly worldly-wise. He surely couldn’t believe the old-wives tosh, and was just peddling nonsense to avoid reality.

But the population time-bomb in India and China is soon going to be upon us. China pursued a one-child policy that has skewed a generation towards males. India’s gender imbalance is cultural rather than state-imposed, but has a similar effect.

Take India. If the 917 girls to 1000 boys ratio is correct, that means by 2020, we are looking at over 25m (and probably closer to 35m) shortfall in girls to boys in a 15 year generation.

The back-of-envelope maths:
There are 100m plus children aged 0-4. Multiply by 3 for a 15-year generation. 300m * (1-0.914) = 25.4m

In other words, there are going to be, in all likelihood, over 20m young men in India who have no chance of finding a partner.

In China, it’s around the same scale – over 20m young men left out of the dating game. The population data used in the CIA Factbook bears this out:

0-14 years Male Female Difference
India 187,450,635 165,415,758 22,034,877
China 126,634,384 108,463,142 18,171,242

In a generation, we are going to have over 40 million enforced bachelors in India and China. What does this mean for these societies? There are several trends we can expect, as outlined in Bare Branches:

high male-to-female ratios often trigger domestic and international violence. Most violent crime is committed by young unmarried males who lack stable social bonds. Although there is not always a direct cause-and-effect relationship, these surplus men often play a crucial role in making violence prevalent within society. Governments sometimes respond to this problem by enlisting young surplus males in military campaigns and high-risk public works projects. Countries with high male-to-female ratios also tend to develop authoritarian political systems.

In other words:
– rising crime in sex trafficking and prostitution
– social bonds weaken
– riots and disillusionment
– authoritarian crackdown
– high military enrollment

Not a wildly happy future. All those who see India and China as a one-way bet should perhaps think again.

Further reading:

BBC:India’s unwanted girls
Economist: The worldwide war on baby girls
Economist: China’s population – The most surprising demographic crisis
UNFPA: Sex-Ratio Imbalance in Asia: Trends, Consequences and Policy Responses

UPDATE: The economist has a great chart on China’s population and the impact of the one-child policy.

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