lies, damned lies, and the BBC

I have become increasingly annoyed and distressed over the years at the way the media decides a narrative for various news stories and then selectively presents the facts to tell the story, ignoring or suppressing anything that suggests a more nuanced or less one-sided account.

BBC-news-headline-13-Feb-2015-croppedSometimes I agree with the overall narrative, sometimes I don’t.  Either way the B-movie Western accounts, which cannot recognise that the baddies can sometimes do good and the goodies may not be pristine, both distort the public’s view of the world and perhaps more damagingly weaken the critical eye that is so essential for democracy.

For the newspapers, we know that they have an editorial stance and I expect a different view of David Cameron’s welfare policy in The Guardian compared with The Telegraph. Indeed, I often prefer to read a newspaper I disagree with as it is easier to see the distortions when they clash with one’s own preconceptions.  One of the joys of the British broadsheet press is that whatever the persuasion, the underlying facts are usually there, albeit deeply buried towards the end of a long article.

However, maybe unfairly, I have higher expectations of the BBC, which are sadly and persistently dashed.  Here it seems not so much explicit editorial policy (although one hears that they do get leant upon by government occasionally), more that they believe a simplistic narrative is more acceptable to the viewer … and maybe they just begin to believe there own stories.

A typical (in the sense of terrifyingly bad) example of this appeared this morning.

After the wonderful news of a peace agreement in Ukraine yesterday, this morning the report read:

Ukraine crisis: Shelling follows Minsk peace summit

The ceasefire is due to start on Sunday, so one can only hope this is a last violent outburst, although to what avail as the borders are already set by the Minsk agreement.

The first few lines of the article read as follows:

New shelling has been reported in the rebel-held east Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, a day after a peace deal was reached in Minsk.

There are no confirmed reports of casualties. Both cities are near the front line where the pro-Russian rebels face government forces.

The ceasefire agreed in the Belarusian capital is to begin in eastern Ukraine after midnight (22:00 GMT) on Saturday.

The EU has warned Russia of additional sanctions if the deal is not respected.

If you have kept abreast of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and can remember your geography, then you will know that this means the Ukrainian Army was shelling rebel-held cities.  However, if you are less aware, this is not the immediate impression of the article.

First notice the passive wording of the title.  Imagine if this had been Syria, the headline would have surely been “Assad’s forces bombard Syrian cities” or “Syrian Army shell civilian areas“.  While the BBC may want to avoid flamboyant titles (although do not demure elsewhere) the article itself is no better.

The opening paragraphs mention ‘shelling’, ‘rebels’ and the EU warning Russians to clean up their act.  The emotional and rhetorical impact is that in some way Russians are to blame for the shelling of cities, and indeed when I read the words to Fiona this was precisely what she assumed.

That is, while the facts are there, they are presented in such a way that the casual reader takes away precisely the opposite of the truth.  In other words, the BBC reporting, whether intentionally or unintentionally, systematically misleads the public.

To be fair, in the earliest version of the article its later parts report first Ukrainian army deaths and then civilian casualties in rebel-held areas:

On Friday morning, a military spokesman in Kiev said eight members of Ukraine’s military had been killed in fighting against separatists in the past 24 hours.

The rebels said shelling killed three civilians in Luhansk, reported AFP news agency.

(Although the second sentence is removed from later versions of the article.)

BBC-news-early-13-Feb-2015-cropped BBC-news-later-13-Feb-2015-cropped
early and later version of same BBC story

The early versions of the article also included an image of a wall in Kiev commemorating Ukrainian army deaths, but not the graphic images of civilian casualties that would be used in other conflicts1. This was later changed to a refugee departing on a bus to Russia ((Later still the image of an armoured vehicle was also added.  I’d not realised before just how much these news stories are post-edited)), which better reflects the facet behind the article.

Of course, this is not a one-sided conflict, and later reports from the region during he day include rebel shelling of government held areas as well as government shelling.  Both sides need to be reported, but the reporting practice seems to be to deliberately obfuscate the far more prevalent Ukrainian army attacks on civilian areas.

If this were just a single news item, it could be just the way things turn out, and other news items might be biased in other directions, but the misreporting is systematic and long term.  Many of BBCs online news items include a short potted history of the conflict, which always says that the current conflict started with Russian annexing of Crimea, conveniently ignoring the violent overthrow of the elected government which led to this.  Similarly the BBC timeline for Ukraine starts in 1991 with the Ukrainian referendum to separate from the USSR, conveniently ignoring the similar overwhelming referendum in Crimea earlier in 1991 to separate from Ukraine2.

To be fair on the journalists on the ground, it is frequently clear that their own raw accounts have a different flavour to the commentary added when footage is edited back in London.

In some way Ukraine could be seen as a special case, the Russians are the bogey men of the today, just like Germany was 100 years ago and France was 100 years previously, it is hard for a journalist to say, “actually in this case they have a point“.

Yet, sadly, the above account could be repeated with different details, but the same underlying message in so many conflicts in frequent times.  Will the media, and the BBC, ever trust the public with the truth, or will ‘news’ always be a B movie?

  1. Maybe this is just deemed too horrifying; a recent Times report of Donetsk morgue includes graphic accounts of shrapnel torn babies, but does not include the Getty images of the morgue preferring an image of an unexploded rocket.[back]
  2. While ignoring the history of Crimea. which does seem germane to the current conflict, the BBC timeline is overall relatively fair; for example, making clear that Yanukovych’s election was “judged free and fair by observers“.[back]

Wikipedia blackout and why SOPA winging gets up my nose

Nobody on the web can be unaware of the Wikipedia blackout, and if they haven’t heard of SOPA or PIPA before will have now.  Few who understand the issues would deny that SOPA and PIPA are misguided and ill-informed, even Apple and other software giants abandoned it, and Obama’s recent statement has effectively scuppered SOPA in its current form.  However, at the risk of apparently annoying everyone, am I the only person who finds some of the anti-SOPA rhetoric at best naive and at times simply arrogant?

Wikipedia Blackout screenshot

The ignorance behind SOPA and a raft of similar legislation and court cases across the world is deeply worrying.  Only recently I posted about the recent NLA case in the UK, that creates potential copyright issues when linking on the web reminiscent of the Shetland Times case nearly 15 years ago.

However, that is no excuse for blinkered views on the other side.

I got particularly fed up a few days ago reading an article “Lockdown: The coming war on general-purpose computing1  by copyright ativist Cory Doctorow based on a keynote he gave at the Chaos Computer Congress.  The argument was that attempts to limit the internet destroyed the very essence of  the computer as a general purpose device and were therefore fundamentally wrong.  I know that Sweden has just recognised Kopimism as a religion, but still an argument that relies on the inviolate nature of computation leaves one wondering.

The article also argued that elected members of Parliament and Congress are by their nature layfolk, and so quite reasonably not expert in every area:

And yet those people who are experts in policy and politics, not technical disciplines, still manage to pass good rules that make sense.

Doctorow has trust in the nature of elected democracy for every area from biochemistry to urban planning, but not information technology, which, he asserts, is in some sense special.

Now even as a computer person I find this hard to swallow, but what would a geneticist, physicist, or even a financier using the Black-Scholes model make of this?

Furthermore, Congress is chastised for finding unemployment more important than copyright, and the UN for giving first regard to health and economics — of course, any reasonable person is expected to understand this is utter foolishness.  From what parallel universe does this kind of thinking emerge?

Of course, Doctorow takes an extreme position, but the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s position statement, which Wikipedia points to, offers no alternative proposals and employs scaremongering arguments more reminiscent of the tabloid press, in particular the claim that:

venture capitalists have said en masse they won’t invest in online startups if PIPA and SOPA pass

This turns out to be a Google sponsored report2 and refers to “digital content intermediaries (DCIs)“, those “search, hosting, and distribution services for digital content“, not startups in general.

When this is the quality of argument being mustered against SOPA and PIPA is there any wonder that Congress is influenced more by the barons of the entertainment industry?

Obviously some, such as Doctorow and more fundamental anti-copyright activists, would wish to see a completely unregulated net.  Indeed, this is starting to be the case de facto in some areas, where covers are distributed pretty freely on YouTube without apparently leading to a collapse in the music industry, and offering new bands much easier ways to make an initial name for themselves.  Maybe in 20 years time Hollywood will have withered and we will live off a diet of YouTube videos :-/

I suspect most of those opposing SOPA and PIPA do not share this vision, indeed Google has been paying 1/2 million per patent in recent acquisitions!

I guess the idealist position sees a world of individual freedom, but it is not clear that is where things are heading.  In many areas online distribution has already resulted in a shift of power from the traditional producers, the different record companies and book publishers (often relatively large companies themselves), to often one mega-corporation in each sector: Amazon, Apple iTunes. For the latter this was in no small part driven by the need for the music industry to react to widespread filesharing.  To be honest, however bad the legislation, I would rather trust myself to elected representatives, than unaccountable multinational corporations3.

If we do not wish to see poor legislation passed we need to offer better alternatives, both in terms of the law of the net and how we reward and fund the creative industries.  Maybe the BBC model is best, high quality entertainment funded by the public purse and then distributed freely.  However, I don’t see the US Congress nationalising Hollywood in the near future.

Of course copyright and IP is only part of a bigger picture where the net is challenging traditional notions of national borders and sovereignty.  In the UK we have seen recent cases where Twitter was used to undermine court injunctions.  The injunctions were in place to protect a few celebrities, so were ‘fair game’ anyway, and so elicited little public sympathy.  However, the Leveson Inquiry has heard evidence from the editor of the Express defending his paper’s suggestion that the McCann’s may have killed their own daughter; we expect and enforce (the Expresss paid £500,000 after a libel case) standards in the print media, would we expect less if the Express hosted a parallel new website in the Cayman Islands?

Whether it is privacy, malware or child pornography, we do expect and need to think of ways to limit the excess of the web whilst preserving its strengths.  Maybe the solution is more international agreements, hopefull not yet more extra-terratorial laws from the US4.

Could this day without Wikipedia be not just a call to protest, but also an opportunity to envision what a better future might be.

  1. blanked out today, see Google cache[back]
  2. By Booz&Co, which I thought at first was a wind-up, but appears to be a real company![back]
  3. As I write this, I am reminded of the  corporation-controlled world of Rollerball and other dystopian SciFi.[back]
  4. How come there is more protest over plans to shut out overseas web sites than there is over unmanned drones performing extra-judicial executions each week.[back]

Private schools and open data

Just read short article “Private schools aren’t doing as well right-wingers like to think” by Rob Cowen @bobbiecowman1.  Rob analyses the data on recent GCSE results and finds that independent schools have been falling behind comprehensive schools in the last couple of years.  He uses this to refute the belief that GCSE standards are dropping, although equally it calls into question David Cameron’s recent suggestion that independent schools such as Eton should be given public money to start ‘Free Schools’2.

However, this is also a wonderful example of the way open data can be used to challenge unsupported views including official ones or ‘common knowledge’.  Of course, during the recent voting reform referendum, David Cameron expressed his disinterest in data and statistics compared with gut feelings, so the availability of data is only half the battle!

Graph shwoing comprehensive vs independent school performance

  1. Thanks to Laura Cowen @lauracowen for re-tweeting this.[back]
  2. See BBC News: Cameron: ‘Eton should set up a state school’[back]

update: (im)migration Holyrood vs Westminster

Since post last week on migration Holyrood vs Westminster, found link on the BBC website to the  the BBC News ‘Reality Check’ on immigration that showed net outflow of non-EU.  That is migration is out of the country not in!  Also Mark Easton’s blog @ the BBC, which gives more info.  Bottom line is that the outflow is even greater then the figure of 8000 given on BBC News.

MS Office and the new digital dark age

I’ve just spent best part of 2 hours simply trying to print some Powerpoint slides as PDF, only to discover it is yet more of the incompetence in Office 2008 that I have previously blogged about (pain, tears and office 2008).   I was trying to get a small PDF for the web and so was printing to a postscript file and then converting to PDF using Adobe Distiller, but Distiller kept crashing with broken postscript commands (I assume it would also have failed to print on a printer).  Strangely if I printed straight to PDF it would view OK, but would again crash if I asked Acrobat to process it to reduce the file size.

After doing a lengthy ‘binary chop’ on the file, printing smaller and smaller segments, I narrowed it down to one slide, and  then a single element on the slide that of deleted made it all work OK.

I had assumed the problem would be some big JPEG image that I had imported, but the offending element turned out to be the little patterned rectangle in the center of the excerpt below.

The little rectangle is supposed to represent a screen and was constructed simply from two Powerpoint shapes, a plain rectangle and a rounded rectangle laid on top of one another.  I assume the complication was that I had used one of the built-in textures in the previous version of Powerpoint (yes backward compatibility again).  I can only assume that Powerpoint encodes these textures in some unusual way and that the newer version of Powerpoint gets confused when it comes to print them (even though it appears to display them fine).

In meetings related to the UKCRC Grand Challenge on Memories for Life, there have been frequent worries, not least from the British Library, about digital preservation, how digital materials from some years ago are hard to access today.  A key example was the BBC ‘Doomsday Book’ project that created a two volume interactive multimedia videodisc in 1986, but by 2002 this was virtually unreadable and was only just saved (see 2002 BBC News article). This was ‘just’ 15 year old technology compared to the 1000 year old original Doomsday Book that is still readable on paper.

However, with Powerpoint we are not just seeing digital preservation problems from 15 year old technology, but between two subsequent versions of the same ‘industry standard’ software on some of its most basic features (static geometric shapes).  The British Library worries about a new digital dark age … and Microsoft’s coders seem to be hell bent on making it happen.

bullying – training for life?

Although I have heard and read similar ideas before, it was still appalling to hear cyber-bullying being described as ‘distressing’ in the tone of voice one would use for spilt tea, and tales of beatings and broken teeth being brushed aside.

I was driving back up country and listening to Tuesday’s Woman’s Hour1.  The guest was Helene Guldberg from the Open University, who had recently published views that anti-bullying initiatives were undermining children’s ability to acquire conflict management skills for later life.

While I share her concerns that we tend towards a nanny society, I cannot imagine that she would feel that being mugged in the streets was helping her to learn how to live in a world where bad things happen,  yet she, and I know she voices a common prejudice in educational theory, feels that violence that would be criminal against an adult is somehow acceptable for a child.  Evidently it is all childhood innocence and any sense of cruelty is simply our adult projections.

In her own moment of exquisite cruelty, Guldberg responded to an email from a woman in her 50s, who felt her life permanently scarred by school bullying.  The woman found it hard to trust anyone, because the instigator of the bullying had been someone whom she thought to be her best friend.  In the classic ‘blame the victim’ fashion, Guldberg explained that this was simply the fact that if we tell children that bullying will scar them for life, then it will.  The woman’s pain was not anything to do with the bullying when she was at school, but effectively self-inflicted … this despite the fact the 35 years ago no-one was telling children that bullying would do harm, as the universal view then was exactly what Guldberg now expounds.

Hearing all this, I recall my own school days and in particular infant school where most of the boys belonged to a class ‘gang’.  Now I would have been perfectly happy if our class gang had fought other classes – I was never one of life’s pacifists.  However, the purpose of the class gang was not to fight other gangs, but to pick on some member of the class, often one of the peripheral members of the gang if there was no-one else.  Now I should explain I was not of a particularly high moral frame; however, I was a romantic and had been brought up with tales of King Arthur and watching Robin Hood on television; so the idea of picking on the weak was against everything I believed in2.  I refused to join in and so became, disproportionately, the one picked on.

my first school

What is particularly striking in retrospect is that those at the heart of the gang leadership, and so of course never picked on by the gang, were the more ‘respectable’ members of the class, the ones the teacher would ask to look after the class if they had to leave.   As far as I can gather, this was not out of some misguided attempt to reform the bullies through responsibility, but purely ignorance.  The teachers were aware of the ‘naughty’ children and those that the gang leaders egged into fighting and hurting others, but not those who seemed on the surface to be the good ones.

This blindness seems odd, but appears to be common.  I recall when our children were small (and home educated), someone telling us about the school their son was at, how good it was and the excellent social environment, but seemed oblivious to the fact that each day he came back with items from his school bag missing or broken and that he kept asking to be picked up from school rather than walk the short distance home.

Later in high school I recall the dynamics were different; there the bullies tended to be the more obvious candidates: big, tough and often less advantaged.  For different reasons I often found myself at the rough end of things; I would try to talk myself out of trouble (those conflict management skills!), but in the end would never back down, no matter the odds.  One of my front teeth is still a little black from a head butt, but today, with knives everywhere, I wonder whether I would have acted the same, or if I had what the consequence would be.

In some sense, in both earlier and later school, I ‘chose’ to be one of the victims, and perhaps as it had an, albeit over romanticised, ethical aspect one could say that it may have strengthened me.  However, most of the victims were not in that position: the less clever children, the first Asian boy in school, the brothers who always had snuffles and so were labelled ‘snotty’, and when my father had died I still recall the taunts of ‘old grey hairs’.  Those who were weaker or simply cannier learnt to appease and submit, but were consequently far more likely to be repeat victims than someone who, even if hurt, would not be cowed.  I am sure the boy I knew in high school, who was learning these important life skills of appeasement and giving in to intimidation, would have developed a rounded and resilient attitude in his later life if he had not committed suicide first.

The presenter, Jane Garvey, and another guest Claude Knights from anti-bullying charity ‘Kidscape‘ did an excellent job in challenging Guldberg’s views, but she seemed completely immune to any evidence.  However, I don’t recall anyone questioning the life skills learnt by the bullies themselves.  The tough but ‘respectable’ boys, who were at the centre of the gangs in early school, are just those who are likely to have become policemen or soldiers.  What did they learn?  Might is right?

And the same attitudes are prevalent in more professional settings; some years ago a team at KPMG were helping us in our search for continued funding for aQtive, our dot.com company.  All the people there were wonderful to us, but looking at their dealings with one another I was often physically sickened by the combination of fawning to superiors and bullying of juniors that I saw.  All good lessons learnt in public school.

For that matter the circle completes and even some teachers repeat the lessons they learnt at school.  I still recall the grin on our lower-school headmaster’s face during school assemblies, when  he would take some child who had committed a misdemeanour, grab him or her by the shoulders and then, in front of everyone, violently shake them in synchrony with his words.

It is not only the victims of school bullying that are the victims; the bullies themselves are victims of those like Guldberg who tell them it is alright to misuse power – and in the deeper weight of things it is perhaps more terrible to learn to be cruel than to learn to be afraid.

  1. Oddly there isn’t a “Man’s Hour” as I guess that would be sexist? … In fact thinking about men’s magazines, perhaps I can see the point.[back]
  2. Although, I didn’t take part in the systematic bullying of the class gang, I am sure there were times during my own childhood, when I hurt others. I am not writing from a moral high ground, I just want us to take all the pains and joys of childhood seriously.[back]

The Cult of Ignorance

Throughout society, media, and academia, it seems that ignorance is no longer a void to be filled, but a virtue to be lauded.  Ignorance is certainly not a ‘problem’, not something to be ashamed of, but is either an opportunity to learn or a signal that you need to seek external expertise.  However, when ignorance is seen as something not just good in itself, but almost a sign of superiority over those who do have knowledge or expertise, then surely this is a sign of a world in decadence.

Although it is something of which I’ve been aware for a long time, two things prompt to think again about this: a mailing list discussion about science in schools and a recent paper review.

The CPHC mailing list discussion was prompted by a report by the BBC on a recent EU survey on attitudes to science amongst 15-25 year olds.  The survey found that around 1/2 of Irish and British respondents felt they “lacked the skills to pursue a career in science” compared with only 10% in several eastern European countries.  The discussion was prompted not so much by the result itself but by the official government response that the UK science community needed to do more “to understand what excites and enthuses young people and will switch them on to a science future.”  While no-one disagrees with the sentiment, regarding it as ‘the problem’ disregards the fact that those countries where scientific and mathematical education is not a problem are precisely those where the educational systems are more traditional, less focused on motivation and fun!

I have blogged before about my concerns regarding basic numeracy, but that was about ‘honest ignorance’, people who should know not knowing.  However, there is a common attitude to technical subjects that makes it a matter of pride for otherwise educated people to say “I could never do maths” or “I was never good at science”, in a way that would be incongruous if it were said about reading or writing (although as we shall see below technologists do do precisely that), and often with the implication that to have been otherwise would have been somehow ‘nerdy’ and made them less well-balanced people.

Sadly this cult of ignorance extends also to academia.

A colleague of mine recently had reviews back on a paper.  One reviewer criticised the use of the term ‘capitalisation’ (which was in context referring to ‘social capital’) as to the reviewer word meant making letters upper case.  The reviewer suggested that this might be a word in the author’s native language.

At a time when the recapitalisation of banks is a major global issue, this surely feels like culpable ignorance.  Obviously the word was being used in a technical sense, but the reviewer was suggesting it was not standard English.  Of course, ‘capital’ in the financial sense dates back certainly 300 years, the verb ‘capitalise’ is part of everyday speech “let’s capitalise on our success”, and my 30 year old Oxford English Dictionary includes the following:

Capitalize 1850. …. 2. The project of capitalizing incomes 1856. Hence Capitalization.

Now I should emphasise it is not the ignorance of the reviewer I object to; I know I am ignorant of many things and ready to admit it.  The problem is that the reviewer feels confident enough in that ignorance to criticise the author for the use of the word … apparently without either (a) consulting a dictionary, or (b) while filling out the online review form bothering to Google it!

This reminded me of a review of a paper I once received that criticised my statistical language, suggesting I should use the proper statistical term ‘significance’ rather than the informal language ‘confidence’.  Now many people do not really understand the difference between significance testing (evidence of whether things are different) and confidence intervals (evidence of how different or how similar they are) – and so rarely use the latter, even though confidence intervals are a more powerful statistical tool.  However the problem here is not so much the ignorance of the reviewer (albeit that a basic awareness of statistical vocabulary would seem reasonable in a discipline with a substantial experimental side), but the fact that the reviewer felt confident enough in his/her ignorance to criticise without either consulting an elementary statistical text book or Googling “statistics confidence”.

So, let’s be proud of our skills and our knowledge, humble in accepting the limits of what we know, and confident enough in ourselves, so that we do not need to denegrate others for doing what we cannot.  Then ignorance becomes a spring board to learn more and a launching point for collaboration

web of data practioner’s days

I am at the Web of Data Practitioners Days (WOD-PD 2008) in Vienna.  Mixture of talks and guided hands-on sessions.  I presented first half of session on “Using the Web of Data” this morning with focus (surprise) on the end user. Learnt loads about some of the applications out there – in fact Richard Cyganiak .  Interesting talk from a guy at the BBC about the way they are using RDF to link the currently disconnected parts of their web and also archives.  Jana Herwig from Semantic Web Company has been live blogging the event.

Being here has made me think about the different elements of SemWeb technology and how they individually contribute to the ‘vision’ of Linked Data.  The aim is to be able to link different data sources together.  For this having some form of shared/public vocabulary or ‘data definitions’ is essential as is some relatively uniform way of accessing data.  However, the implementation using RDF or use of SPARQL etc. seems to be secondary and useful for some data, but not other forms of data where tabular data may be more appropriate.  Linking these different representations  together seems far more important than specific internal representations.  So wondering whether there is a route to linked data that allows a more flexible interaction with existing data and applications as well as ‘sucking’ in this data into the SemWeb.  Can the vocabularies generated for SemWeb be used as meta information for other forms of information and can  query/access protocols be designed that leverage this, but include broader range of data types.

Basic Numeracy

When the delayed SATS results eventually arrive, I’m sure there will be the regular navel gazing at the state of basic numeracy and literacy in UK schools. But what about those who were in primary schools 30 years ago?

This morning on BBC News Channel an interviewer was talking to an economist from the City. They were discussing the reduction in bank lending (a fall of 3% during June, with 32% year-on-year drop ) and its implications for the housing market and the economy in general. The interviewer asked if it was accelerating and the economist agreed, mentioning how the year-on-year drop had gone from 10% in one quarter to 20% in the next and now over 30%.

Of course these figures are all based on a year-on-year average that includes the period before the credit crunch began last autumn and in fact are consistent with a steady linear fall of around 3% per month for the 9 months since the Northern Rock collapse. That is an alarming rate of fall, but not evidence of an accelerating fall.

This apparent lack of basic numeracy reminds me of a discussion some years ago with senior financial executives who dismissed any attempt to quantify projected company income as ‘just numbers’. Having lost money in the Northern Rock collapse I wonder whether the executives in Northern Rock and other banks had a similar attitude!

I know it is easy for me as a trained mathematician to hold up my hands in horror, but still these are people who are playing not only with their own livelihoods, but also the lives of their investors, ordinary people and even the state of the entire economy.

We do have a peculiar attitude in the UK where it is acceptable for highly educated people (including many computer scientists) to just ‘not do math’, and furthermore say so with a level of pride, whereas to say the same about reading would be unconscionable. Other European countries seem far more numerate, so this seems to be a cultural phenomena not an intellectual problem.

I have heard that one of the best predictors of educational success is if a child is willing to put off a treat for another day. Mathematics does require doing work at one stage to see benefit maybe many years later, but this to some extent runs counter to the increasingly common expectation of students to want to know fully and completely how something is useful to them now.

Maybe the answer is for schools to have lessons in leaving sweeties until tomorrow … and perhaps remedial lessons for City economists who matured during the Thatcher years.