Riddler Express, June 26 2020

Simple question for this one:

In Riddler City, the city streets follow a grid layout, running north-south and east-west. You’re driving north when you decide to play a little game. Every time you reach an intersection, you randomly turn left or right, each with a 50 percent chance.

After driving through 10 intersections, what is the probability that you are still driving north?

Read more

So you’re going to be a Penalty Box Timer?

A couple of weeks ago I worked as a penalty box timer for the Fab Slav roller derby sevens tournament. If you don’t know what roller derby is, this post is not for you. Instead, you should find out!
 
This post is about what I learned of penalty box timing after doing it for the first time. It’s not a substitute for reading the WFTDA docs, being familiar with the sheets you’ll fill in, watching Brain of Terror’s videos, or taking any training that is offered to you.

Read more

Could the Tories Still Lose?

Last night, the betting markets were giving the Tories a better than 75% chance of winning a majority in Thursday’s general election. Polls still have them far ahead, and personally, I expect that they’ll do it.

If we are wrong about that, and they don’t form a majority, why might that be? If a hung parliament is coming, what would make people blind to it?

Read more

Godwin’s Law is Everywhere

I am strongly pro-Remain, but this is a bit much:

I think the Leavers lied, misrepresented, and cheated. But I don’t think anyone lied about the number of ballots cast in the referendum, and I don’t think May is looking to secure herself in power, annex her neighbours, and start a programme of genocide.

This is not a helpful comparison. Parliament can do what it likes, regardless of May’s preferences. While I don’t like the first-past-the-post method we use to elect the Commons, it is still democratic. Unlike the referendum mentioned in the tweet, MPs typically face meaningful opposition to win their seats.

The only part of this I can really get behind is the implied criticism of the idea that “the will of the people” is already known to the leader, and it must be carried out at all costs.

As Godwin said, cheap Nazi comparisons stop people thinking hard about the Holocaust.

The NHS is a World Unto Itself

My position when writing: unclear, but I’m not particularly a fan of Jeremy Hunt.

Apparent argument: some things are going wrong in the NHS.

https://twitter.com/StandWithNHS/status/1003615899180511232


What’s right with this? Well, I assume the claims are factually correct

What’s wrong with this? Two main things – it’s context free, and it doesn’t tell me why I should care about those particular measures.

As the NHS changes, facts and figures about it will change. Without knowing the story behind a change, it’s difficult to know if the facts are part of good news or bad news. The facts given by David Lammy’s tweet could be be part of good or neutral changes. I don’t know that they are, but consider:

  • “the number of people waiting over two weeks for urgent cancer treatment has more than doubled” – this depends on how the number of those people is measured. How do we decide who has an urgent need for cancer treatment? If our detection systems are better now, but our treatment capacity hasn’t changed, then the queue could be longer without any decrease in the amount of treatment.
  • “the NHS has lost 7000 beds” – this would be fine, if the need for beds had also decreased. So if treatment was better, and patients had shorter stays in hospital, or if more conditions were being treated without a hospital admission, then the number of beds could decrease without any negative consequences.
  • “the number of people waiting more than four hours in A&E is up 842%” – okay, it’s difficult to see how this could be a good thing! But perhaps this is partly explained by there being more patients overall. If the number of patients has doubled, then that cuts in half the size of the increase that needs to be explained by something else, such as incompetence or relative underfunding.

Similarly, for some of the items in the StandwithNHS tweet:

  • “72 NHS Walk In Centres Closed/Downgraded”, “61 Ambulance Stations Closed” – the number of closures or downgradings are not that useful by themselves, because it’s not clear that the numbers are net (effective) or total. It’s possible that 100 new ambulance stations were opened, 61 were closed, and we now have 39 more overall. Maybe only 50 were opened, but that still means there are only 11 less than there were before, rather than the 61 mentioned.
  • “9.1% NHS funding cut per patient” – maybe drugs are cheaper, or more effective. Maybe we treat more patients without admitting them. Maybe we treat more patients with drugs than with surgery. Maybe this includes patients who called NHS Direct. There are all kinds of ways that funding levels could be lower without anything being worse.

Now look at the good news, according to the Conservatives’ own web site:

This looks like good news, but it can still hide poor service:

  • “We have increased health funding to a record level – so people get the care they need.” – it could still be falling when inflation is taken into account.
  • “We are investing more in mental health than ever before – transforming mental health services.” – this isn’t inflation-adjusted either. It’s impossible to know what is meant by “transforming”.
  • “There are more doctors and nurses looking after patients.” – there could still be less than are needed.
  • “Our healthcare system has been ranked the best healthcare system of 11 wealthy countries by The Commonwealth Fund.” – the Fund’s criteria may not be the same as British people’s criteria. The NHS’s current performance could be worse than it was in the past.
  • “Cancer survival rates at a record high.” – performance may simply have moved from “very bad” to “bad”. It may still be possible to do much better.

There are thousands of possible ways of describing the NHS’s performance. Most of them don’t tell you much, unless you understand their context. Because the NHS is such a large organisation, and is constantly changing, it’s perfectly possible for some parts of it to get better while other parts get worse.


The NHS is supposed to keep people healthy. It is effective if the people it treats are healthier than they would have been otherwise, and it is efficient if it doesn’t cost too much to do that. (That cost can be in cash, time, or something else).

Discussion about the number of hospital beds, the number of nurses, or the number of ambulance stations, is beside the point. Changes to those numbers can help or hurt. But we don’t care how many ambulance stations there are, we care about how many people are saved by ambulances arriving quickly. We don’t care how many nurses there are, we care about how many patients don’t get good enough nursing care.

The questions we should be asking are about outcomes, not resource levels. Are patients are receiving high-quality care? Is the NHS saving the highest possible number of Quality-Adjusted Life Years? Is this being done for the lowest cost consistent with high quality?

Most of the points raised above are about resource levels, not outcomes, so any discussion they prompt is likely to be about means, not ends. We should focus on ends.

 

Confusion and Conflation

My position: I don’t like much of the British press, partly because it leans quite right-wing. Some right-wing people are corrupt. George Osborne is amusing when he’s taunting the current government, but otherwise fairly unpleasant

At issue: Owen Jones tweeted this out earlier:

Two things struck me here:

  1. We do have a relatively free press. People can write and publish what they like, without government interference. The Press Freedom Index agrees: the UK was 40th in the world in 2018, in the “satisfactory” category. It would be better if we were positioned higher, and we should be trying to change our libel laws, among other things.
    What Owen presumably means is that we don’t have as much left-wing press as we do right-wing. That’s true by many measures, but it’s not the same at all.
  2. The comparison and extension (“We don’t have a free press… right-wing oligarchs… But this is utter blatant corruption.”) seems intended to link being right-wing with being corrupt. Lots of right-wing people are corrupt, perhaps oligarchs more frequently than others. But this seems like an attempt to tarnish all right-wing people, based on the extreme actions of one.

He’s right about George Osborne though. Wow, this is cynical. Owen could have stuck it to him without the unfounded complaints or smears.

Predictors for The Boat Race

It’s The Boat Race on Sunday, the historic annual competition between the best VIII of both Cambridge and Oxford, for no prize whatsoever. I took a look at the results on the Wikipedia page to see if there are any good predictors for the result.

TL;DR : the result of the second boat race is normally the same as the result of the first boat race, but isn’t significant. If a university has won the last three races, they’re likely to win again, and that is significant.

Read more

A Microeconomic Defence of Trade Unions

I recently had a discussion on Facebook about the value of trade unions. Two people in the discussion could not see that they had any value to the economy, one going so far as to suggest that they even made their members poorer. This post is a theoretical defence of the value of trade unions to a country’s whole economy.

Read more

Gaming Coursera Quizzes

I have signed on for a number of Coursera courses now, and each of them have assigned a heavy weighting to graded quizzes. Unfortunately these quizzes are typically easy to game: it is typically possible to score 100% without knowing anything about the subject. This post shows how that can be done, and suggests a solution.

Read more