net.wars: New math "entitles" politicians to claim support

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 06 June 2003

Hooray for New Math! New math*! It won't do you a bit of good if you can do math! It's so simple! So very simple! That only a child can do it!

Wendy M Grossman

Now, you can't take 6,000 against 2,000, it's three times 2,000, so you look at the zero in the hundreds place. Now, that's really ten zeroes, so you make it nine zeroes, regroup, and you change the six to six ones, and you take away four, and that leaves two. Now go back to the hundreds place. You're left with two, and you take away one from two, and that leaves - everybody get one?

I love Tom Lehrer.

So, apparently, do Britain's politicians, who have been having a lot of fun with statistics lately. First, there was the matter of the disappearing weapons of mass destruction. Now, there's the matter of the collapsing comments. Some of you may remember how, back in about January, when the consultation on the proposals for "entitlement" cards was still going, Stand ran a little campaign reminding people to send their comments in to their MPs – a lot of us went from Stand to fax ours.

Simultaneously, Privacy International set up a couple of phone lines for the purpose of recording audio files of people's comments, pro and con, with the files being forwarded to the Home Office.

Stand collected 5,029 comments in three weeks, at a time when the Home Office was claiming it had received 1,500 comments in five months. PI had about 800 calls. So all together we're talking about nearly 6,000 responses. Which Stand and PI have learned the Home Office feels are best "collapsed" to one. See, you have to consider the source. They're all lobbying organizations together, aren't they? So it's all really just one big petitition. You know, like that huge thing on a trolley that Jim Hacker wanted "filed" in Yes. Minister: The Death List.

So, if you do the math, apparently I'm .04 percent of a person. Does this mean I get to pay .04 percent of my tax bill?

But it occurs to me there's a lot more interesting math to be done. For example: we've known for a long time – PI has unearthed some confirmation – that TPTB (The Powers That Be) give email and phone calls less weight than posted letters. Presumably the civil service has done calculations. So it remains to us, intrepid investigators that we are, to work out what the formula could be and what measures it uses in assessing what weight to give a particular communication.

For example: perhaps the argument is that it takes less time and thought to write an email message or make a phone call than to write a letter. There's some justice to this, to be sure. I can fire off a lengthy, well-thought-out email message in about five minutes (oh, come on, we'll say I proofread it, OK?). A letter takes much longer: about the same amount of time to type, but printing adds about 20 seconds, and then there's the week to find the stamp now that the verkochte Royal Mail refuses to sell me non-selfstick stamps with numbers on them. The business part of the phone call is probably only a couple of minutes, but you have to add points for how long it takes to get through, how aggravating the music on hold is, and how badly designed the voice menus are. My mole in the civil service, H. ap Pleby, tells me that in fact they love direct phone calls, because it's so much easier to lose all record of them.

Still, it seems clear that the relevant measure isn't time or the length of the message. If it were, the opinions of obsessed, unemployed, shut-in, former world-class typists would count as much as those of large businesses who can afford to employ full-time comments writers. So perhaps it's the actual physical weight. A letter weighs 10g to 20g. A phone call or email message - well, I don't have facilities here precise enough to weigh electrons, but it's pretty small.

But here's the thing. Here's the UK talking about how it's going to be this really whizzy e-government, with electronic voting and direct feedback right into the minds of government ministers. And what's the first thing they do? They take 5,.029 Web-generated faxes and perform nuclear fusion on them, despite the fact that at least ten percent of them actually supported the government's position. Then they take 800 phone calls, with positive and negative responses sent to separate phone lines, and refuse to treat them as valid individual responses. If this is what we can expect from e-government, let's stick with the old kind. Even Hacker eventually had Bernard roll out that petititon to show the waiting tabloid hack how big it was.

No wonder they keep trying to drop math from the national curriculum.

*Editor's note: Ms Grossman is American, as are many of our readers. For our English readers, we would remind you that Americans only study mathematic, not mathematics ...

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).