Confronting history

March 30, 2014

I recently heard a BBC World Service radio programme, Missing Histories – China and Japan. This documentary about Sino-Japanese relations features journalists, Mariko Oi from Japan and Haining Liu from China, who took it turns to visit the other’s country. The two Asian powerhouses have a complicated relationship. At the heart of the problem is what China perceives as Japan’s wilful refusal to acknowledge the 1937 Nanking Massacre. As part of the country’s patriotic education policy films and documentaries depicting China’s resistance to the Japanese invasion have become a staple of Chinese television schedules.

Relations had begun to improve after Shinzo Abe became the Prime Minister of Japan in September 2006. There were even some attempts to reach a consensus on Nanjing. However, in the last few years tensions have resurfaced over a number of contentious issues:

1. Japan has accused China of withholding its reserves of valuable rare earth elements.
2. The Diaoyu Islands dispute has sparked a number of hostile skirmishes in the East China Sea.
3. Anti-Japanese feeling has led to frequent riots and protests in China.

The programme was an emotive one, especially for Haining Liu, whose family is from Nanjing. She wanted to walk out of an interview with one Japanese academic who kept referring to the Nanjing “incident”. He then went on to downplay the loss of Chinese lives. It was an exercise in cynicism. But I was also interested in the reaction of the Chinese reporter, who became tearful and said she felt like she was being bullied. I shared her outrage at the sophistry of the Japanese academic.

However, China also needs to look at its own history. What Chairman Mao did to the Chinese was also brutal. Yet successive Chinese governments have attempted to whitewash these atrocities. I have already written about the tendency to gloss over communist atrocities in a previous post. I have never been able why the image of a mass murderer, Chairman Mao, should be acceptable on a t-shirt. This desire to glorify the past is also present in Putin’s Russia.

In Missing Histories one of the Japanese academics argued that the purpose of studying history was to make people feel good about their country. I fundamentally disagree – history should teach us about our country warts and all. But this should be done with balance. What we need is to look at our past in an honest way. That does not mean only looking only at the negative. Recently we have seen the success of the Oscar-winning Twelve Years a Slave, and it is indeed a powerful film. Slavery, though, is not a Western monopoly. It is almost a human universal. We rarely hear of the Arab slave trade I do think that the founding fathers of the United States were remarkable men. But they were the product of the time in which they lived. The Declaration of Independence was a work of genius. But many of the men who signed it were slave-owners. This is why history is so fascinating, but it is not a subject in which to find easy moral lessons or faultless role models.

How should we deal with poisonous historical legacies? Every country has its dark episodes. In Spain we have two such questions. The Spanish transition is generally held up as a model political process. I think in general it was handled well. It would have been a mistake to have had mass arrests after the demise of General Franco. Spain is now a fully fledged democracy. After a century which saw two dictatorships, a failed republic and a civil war that is not a bad achievement. However, I would have liked to have seen a Spanish equivalent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The second issue is the end of ETA. I am not sure if people here realise that one of the disagreeable prices of ending the conflict will have to be the release of terrorists. When you seek resolution, compromises need to be made. It is not perfect but the most important aspect is the future. In this sense I consider myself a pragmatist.

The example of Nelson Mandela comes to mind. After spending more than two decades of his life on Robben Island the typical reaction would have been a thirst for revenge. Not only did Mandela not seek payback, but he was somehow able to put himself in the shoes of the white minority. It is hard, but sometimes we have to follow the examples of Mandela or the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. And I want to conclude with an example of reconciliation that would have been unthinkable after the end of the Second World War. France and Germany now have common textbooks for history. If only this example were followed in more places.


My favourite links #42

March 30, 2014

Fans of QI will be pleased to hear that the Elves, the researchers behind the TV show, have a new podcast, No Such Thing As A Fish, in which they bring you the most interesting facts they’ve unearthed during the week. The podcast are released every Friday afternoon; there have been four so far.


36 Unusual Units of Measurement

March 22, 2014

Here is a video from the Mental Floss website:

Hang gliding while eating a bacon sandwich: the world of Micromorts and Microlives

March 22, 2014

No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home at Weston-super-Mare. Kingsley Amis



A constant theme in this blog has been how we tend to misjudge risk. After a terrorist incident many people change their mode of transport from plane to car or from bus to bicycle, even though the new ways are much riskier. We hear a lot about drink driving, but what about drink walking? When I write about these topics, I tend to use the pronoun we. I am not immune to these errors.

Comparing and communicating these small but lethal risks is a complicated task, but there is a handy tool available to help us in this endeavour – the micromort. We have Ronald A. Howard, a professor at StanfordUniversity, to thank for this extremely useful concept. An expert in decision analysis, he wanted to break down the idea of fatal risk into small units. Mr. Howard will be eighty this August, so he does seem to know something about staying alive.

The micromort, which represents a one-in-a-million chance of death, enables us to us to convert small risks into whole numbers that can be easily compared. David Spiegelhalter explains it very well in the video above: If you threw 20 coins in the air, the likelihood that they’d all come down heads would equal roughly one micromort. Spiegelhalter illustrates it simply. Typically, about 50 people in England and Wales die accidentally or violently each day by what are known as external causes. As there are roughly 50 million people in England and Wales, this means that about one in a million shuffle off this mortal coil in this way, every day. So this daily risk for the population of England and Wales is in the region of one micromort. This is the risk of an average citizen. But of course we are not all the same. Some of us are extremely risk-averse, whereas others think nothing of jumping off a mountain. There are some interesting statistics in the video here are a few more I found on Wikipedia:

Hang gliding – 8 micromorts per trip

Scuba diving – 4.72 micromorts per dive

Skydiving (in the US) – 7 micromorts per jump

Horse-riding – 0.5 micromorts

Ecstasy (MDMA) < 0.5 micromorts

The comparison between ecstasy and horse riding is what got David Nutt the Labour government’s scientific adviser sacked, another victim of the crazy war on drugs.

Age also comes into play too. I heard these statistics in a video on the Mental Floss website: A 59-year old man has an overall risk of 7,000 micromorts, which means a 7% chance of dying. By the age of 85, this will have reached 200,000 micromorts, or a 20% risk of death.

However, there are many other risks we take don’t kill us straight away. These are lifestyle choices such as smoking, drinking, eating badly, not doing exercise and so on. Spiegelhalter has come up with a new measure to deal with these risks- the microlife. This aims to make all these chronic risks comparable by showing how much life we lose on average when we’re exposed to them; a microlife is 30 minutes of your life expectancy.

Here are some things that would, on average, cost a 30-year-old man 1 microlife:

 Smoking 2 cigarettes

Drinking 7 units of alcohol (e.g. 2 pints of strong beer)

Each day of being 5 Kg overweight

You can also gain microlives. 20 minutes on any given day exercising vigorously will “earn” you two microlives – an extra hour’s breathing. Alas, there are diminishing returns; every extra 40 minutes exercising after that buys only 30 minutes.

Micromorts and microlives measure different kinds of risk. If you survive your motorbike ride, then your micromort slate is wiped clean and you start the next day with an empty account. But if you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, drink 10 beers and live off fast food, then your microlives will accumulate. Spiegelhalter compares it to a lottery where the tickets you buy each day remain valid for ever – so your chances of “winning” increase every day.

Are these measures useful? I think they are. Some argue that these numbers are only useful to insurance companies and governments and they tell you nothing whatsoever about whether any individual will actually be harmed by the particular behaviour, because there are always people who engage in the behaviour in question and do not suffer from it. Moreover, they may give more ammunition to scaremongers – fuelling paranoia like those tabloid news stories. Nothing can guarantee that we will live to one hundred. But I think it is always better to be informed. I don’t think it need make us neurotic. We all need to know our risk profile. Mine happens to be quite low. But if you have high risk tolerance, go ahead and do what turns you on.


Linguistic note: I couldn’t find a precise etymology for micromort. There is also an alternative spelling – MicroMort. In different pieces I have seen Spiegelhalter spelling it both ways. And as I am typing this post Microsoft Word underlines the word in red every time I write it. It is a pity that a word whose origins lie in the 1970s has not achieved greater recognition.

Take me to the ballpark

March 16, 2014

I may not be an avid follower of baseball, but I can tell you that the current World Series champions are the Boston Read Sox, who defeated the Saint Louis Cardinals 4-2 in the best-of-seven final. This is quite a turnaround for the Red Sox; it is their third title in the last ten years. Previously the Fenway Park club had not won the title since 1918. This drought became known in baseball circles as the “Curse of the Bambino.” It was said that Harry Fraze, the owner of the Boston club was forced to sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in order to finance the Broadway show, No, No, Nanette, a musical whose most famous song was “Tea for Two”. This may be a myth but what cannot be denied is that the Red Sox would rue the sale. Babe Ruth would go on to become a baseball legend and the Red Sox would go 86 years without a World Series. I don’t really understand the sport very well, but this is what I love about baseball – its rich history. I just can’t get enough of baseball lore. Here are a few of my favourite episodes of baseball history.

The 1919 World Series

This is the infamous series in which gangster Arnold Rothstein is said to have fixed the World Series Final. Rothstein, who subsisted almost entirely on milk, cake and fresh figs, allegedly paid members of the Chicago White Sox to throw the World Series. He bet against them and made a significant profit. He was never convicted. All the records and minutes of the Grand Jury disappeared. So, too, did the signed confessions of the players who had admitted to being part of the match fixing. The state had virtually nothing to pin on Rothstein. And when the players, citing the Fifth Amendment, refused to repeat their confessions on the stand, the writing was on the wall for the prosecution. The judge had no choice but to dismiss the case. The players fared worse. Despite being acquitted, the eight players involved in the scandal would never play again. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the newly appointed Commissioner of Baseball, argued that while the players had been acquitted, none of them could ever be allowed back into the game if it was to clean up its public image. It is Joseph Jefferson Jackson, AKA Shoeless Joe Jackson, who is most associated with the scandal. He made numerous appeals to overturn his ban, none of which were successful. Some people argue that the evidence is not so clear and that Jackson belongs in baseball’s Hall of Fame. The incident has become a staple of books, films and television. Meyer Wolfsheim, the character in The Great Gatsby is based on Rothstein. And the gangster appears as one of the regulars on Boardwalk Empire. The eight banned players, most prominently Shoeless Joe Jackson, are principal characters in the novel Shoeless Joe, which was made into the film Field of Dreams.

F***ing up your team’s chances of winning the World Series: Priceless

Then we have the Steve Bartman incident. It was a playoff game between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins on October 14, 2003, at Wrigley Field in Chicago. It was Game 6 of the National League Championship Series and the Cubs were leading 3-2 and needed just one more win to clinch the series. And in the eighth inning leading 3-0 they appeared to be on their way to the World Series. But then disaster struck. The Marlins’ second baseman Luis Castillo hit a foul ball and several spectators attempted to catch it. One of them, the abovementioned Barman, reached for the ball, deflecting it foiling a potential catch by Cubs outfielder Moisés Alou. If Alou had caught the ball it would have been the second out in the inning, and the Cubs would have been just four outs away from winning their first National League pennant since 1945. What actually happened was that the Cubs surrendered eight runs in the inning and they went on to lose 8-3. They would be eliminated in the seventh game the next day. To add insult to injury the Marlins defeated the New York Yankees in six games, winning the sixth game in Yankee Stadium and claiming their second World Series.

he hapless Bartman, a lifelong Cubs fan, had to be escorted from the stadium by security guards and placed under police protection for a time when his name and address were made public on MLB message boards. T-shirts appeared parodying the MasterCard commercials:

Tickets to a Cubs game: $200

Chicago Cubs hat: $20

1987 Walkman: $10

F***ing up your team’s chances of winning the World Series: Priceless

Bartman did release an apology:

“I had my eyes glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moisés Alou much less that he may have had a play.” He decided to keep a low profile declining interviews, endorsement deals, and requests for public appearances, including an offer to appear as a VIP at Wrigley Field, the chance to be featured in an ESPN documentary and a six-figure offer for a Super Bowl commercial. Due to the irate phone calls, his family was forced to change their phone number.

The Curse of the Billy Goat

Many fans associated the Bartman incident with the Curse of the Billy Goat, allegedly laid on the Cubs during the 1945 World Series after Billy Sianis and his pet goat were ejected from Wrigley Field because the pet goat’s odour was bothering other fans. An outraged Sianis declared, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” The Cubs lost that series to the Detroit Tigers in seven games and have yet to return to the championship round.

According to Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim in their entertaining Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, the Cubs’ consistently dire results cannot be explained by invoking curses or bad luck. They have reached the bottom far more often than random chance says they should, finishing last or second to last nearly 40 percent of the time. The odds of this happening by chance are 527 to 1. The real question is why they haven’t put better teams together.

Generally sports teams seek titles. This is in part for the glory recognition and prestige that comes with success on the field. But it’s also about the bottom line. A more successful team generates more fans, which generates more revenue. Winning teams should attract more sell-out crowds and be able to command more lucrative sponsorship deals, higher local and national TV ratings and souvenir sales. All things being equal winning regularly should boost the brand name of the franchise, and increase revenue. And losing should have the opposite effect.

However, not all teams have the same need for sporting glory. The Cubs seem to be a special case. They have one of baseball’s most rabid and committed fan bases who seem to subconsciously enjoy their repeated failures – it is part of their image as loveable losers. It turns out that attendance at Wrigley Field is the least sensitive to performance in all of baseball. The sensitivity of attendance per game to winning percentage for the Cubs is only 0.6, much less than one. The Yankees, on the other hand, have an attendance sensitivity of 0.9, meaning that attendance moves almost one for one with winning percentage. No wonder that the authors have branded the Cubs America’s Teflon team.

From 1990 to 2009 every team in the Major Leagues gained value the more it won – except one – the Cubs. Incredibly, the Cubs saw their value rise slightly the more it lost.  Despite having a dismal 48.6% winning record over the last two decades, the Cubs’ owners have still been able to increase ticket prices by 67% since 1990. This is quite a feat given that the league average is 44.7% over the same period. Attendance is now at an all-time high 99% of capacity.

We’re only here for the beer

Attendance seems to be much more sensitive to beer prices than to whether the team actually wins or loses.  The atmosphere is summed up in a T-shirt slogan:

Cubs baseball: Shut up and drink your beer.”

Wrigley Field had the third-highest ticket prices in all MLB, averaging nearly $48 a seat. The only two stadiums which charged more were Fenway Park and the new Yankee Stadium, which charged an average of $50 and $73 a ticket respectively. However, the price of a small beer at Wrigley Field, $5 at the concession stand, was the third lowest in the league. As Moskowitz and Wertheim point out, Cubs fans will tolerate bad baseball and high ticket prices, but draw the line at bad baseball and expensive beer. With fans like these bringing a winning team to Wrigley Field may not be a priority. They have found an unusual niche in sport. In financial terms there may well be a number of teams who wish that they too were cursed.

The Red Sox may have broken their curse in 2004, 2007 and 2013, but have they lost something too. They’ve become more like a version of their hated rivals – the Yankees. They too splash the cash and a season without a World Series title is now regarded as a failure. The Chicago Cubs’ fans are now the ones who have the bragging rights to a curse.

My favourite sporting films

March 16, 2014

Here is a the list in alphabetical order:


Any Given Sunday

Bull Durham

Chariots of Fire

Escape to Victory

Fever Pitch

Field of Dreams

Hoop Dreams


Raging Bull


Searching for Bobby Fischer

The Color of Money

The Damned United

The Hustler

Tin Cup

When We Were Kings

White Men Can’t Jump

Do our names define us? – Dennis the dentist and other mysteries of naming

March 9, 2014

In previous posts I have looked at brand names and political labels. Today I am going to examine our given names, those which our parents bestow upon us at or near birth. They used to be called Christian names when I was growing up, but in a secular country this has become anachronistic. Although it is not the norm in many parts of the world, in western societies the given name is almost always the first name and that is the term I will use from now on.

First names were traditionally used in a familiar and friendly manner in informal situations. In more formal situations the surname was generally used. The idiom on first-name terms alludes to the familiarity of addressing another by a given name. However, in recent years there has been a tendency to use first names more and more. I think this familiarity has become overused, but this is the subject for another post.

Names are subject to a boom and bust cycle. And there is no doubt that the churn rate shot up in the twentieth century and has continued this century. Almost every name that becomes popular seems to begin as a high class name, at the top of the income distribution, and over the course of time they gradually work their way down the class ladder, becoming more and more popular among the plebs. And as names become popular among the lower status parents, the higher-educated ones flee in horror at what have now become vulgar names. And the cycle begins again.

Where influences people’s choice of name? Sometimes there can be the influence of famous personalities. According to linguist Steven Pinker the name Darren was unknown in England until the comedy Bewitched. For obvious reasons Adolf has not been popular since the 1930s. However, sociologist Stanley Lieberson has argued that in most cases that the increase in popularity generally happens before the influence of a celebrity kicks in. The name of the celebrity may help boost the name to even greater heights, but it didn’t create the trend.

When celebrities begin naming their own children you get some bizarre results. I know many people bemoan the influence of celebrities on society. but I don’t think we have seen anyone rushing out to copy these gems:

Apple Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin

Brooklyn, Romeo, Cruz and Harper 7 David and Victoria Beckham

Diva Thin Muffin and Moon Unit – Frank Zappa

Jermajesty – Jermaine Jackson

Moxie Crimefighter – Penn Jillette

Rocket Man – Pharrell Williams

Tu Morrow – Rob Morrow

One fascinating topic is the evolution of African-American names. This featured in the first Freakonomics book, written Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The data show the black-white gap to be a recent phenomenon. Until the early 1970s there was a great overlap between black and white names. The typical baby girl born in a black neighbourhood in 1970 was given a name that was twice as common among blacks as it was among whites. By 1980 she received a name that was twenty times more common among blacks. The trend is less marked among boys’ names because parents of all races are less adventurous with boys’ names than with girls’. One possible cause is the impact of the Black Power movement and its campaign for a distinctive identity.

Levitt and Dubner studied California birth records from the 1990s.More than 40% of the black girls born in the Golden state in a given year receive a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 baby white girls received that year. Even more remarkably, nearly 30% of the black girls are given a name that is unique among the names of every baby, white and black, born that year in California. Unique was one of the most interesting examples. Just in the 1990s there were 228 babies named Unique. There were also such unconventional spellings Uneek, Uneque, and Uneqqee. It is a black parent’s signal of solidarity with the community.

What are the effects of this? One study called “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?”, by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, found that if you send out a  CV with a white-sounding name, you are 50% more likely to be called back than an identical CV with a black-sounding name.

Some social critics want to argue that the name is destiny. In Freakonomics they cite the case of Temptress, a fifteen-year-old girl appearing before Albany County Family Court in New York. Judge W. Dennis Duggan had long been aware of the strange names of many of offenders who appeared in his courtroom. But Duggan considered Temptress the most outrageous name he had come across. He was so intrigued that he wanted to interrogate the mother. She had liked a young actress who played Vanessa Huxtable on the Cosby show – Tempestt Bledsoe. She only found out later that she had misspelled the name. Was Temptress really living up to her name or would she have wound up in trouble even if her mother had called her Faith Hope or Chastity?

We need to consider the kind of parent that is most likely to give a child such a distinctively black name? The data offer a clear answer: an unmarried, low-income, undereducated teenage mother from a black neighbourhood who has a distinctively black name herself. It is surely this reality that is the cause of under-achievement. Her name is a symptom—not a cause—of many negative outcomes.

This also shows that correlation is not causation. A similar case is that of the supposed connection between being called Dennis and becoming a dentist. It is called nominative determinism. The idea behind it is that people should prefer people, places, and things that they associate (unconsciously) with the self…people’s positive automatic associations about themselves may influence their feelings about almost anything that people associate with the self. I am sceptical. Uri Simonsohn studied the same data and came to a very different conclusion. Instead of comparing the number of dentists named Dennis to those named Jerry or Walter he compared the number of dentists named Dennis to the number of lawyers named Dennis. Making this comparison, Simonsohn finds that Dennis is just as overrepresented among lawyers as among dentists.

So perhaps we shouldn’t get so hung up on names. They are not destiny. We like to emphasise the importance of our first official act as parents. This has spawned myriad books, websites, and even baby-name consultants. I will conclude with this amusing anecdote from Freakonomics:

… in 1958, a New York City man named Robert Lane decided to call his baby son Winner. The Lanes, who lived in a housing project in Harlem, already had several children, each with a fairly typical name. But this boy—well, Robert Lane apparently had a special feeling about this one. Winner Lane: how could he fail with a name like that?

Three years later, the Lanes had another baby boy, their seventh and last child. For reasons that no one can quite pin down today, Robert decided to name this boy Loser. It doesn’t appear that Robert was unhappy about the new baby; he just seemed to get a kick out of the name’s bookend effect. First a Winner, now a Loser. But if Winner Lane could hardly be expected to fail, could Loser Lane possibly succeed?

Loser Lane did in fact succeed. He went to prep school on a scholarship, graduated from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and joined the New York Police Department (this was his mother’s longtime wish), where he made detective and, eventually, sergeant. Although he never hid his name, many people were uncomfortable using it. “So I have a bunch of names,” he says today, “from Jimmy to James to whatever they want to call you. Timmy. But they rarely call you Loser.” Once in a while, he said, “they throw a French twist on it: ‘Losier.’” To his police colleagues, he is known as Lou.

And what of his brother with the can’t-miss name? The most noteworthy achievement of Winner Lane, now in his midforties, is the sheer length of his criminal record: nearly three dozen arrests for burglary, domestic violence, trespassing, resisting arrest, and other mayhem.

These days, Loser and Winner barely speak. The father who named them is no longer alive. Clearly he had the right idea—that naming is destiny—but he must have gotten the boys mixed up.