Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Boggle(TM), Scramble(TM) and statistics

I've been fiddling around with Boggle letters and trying to learn more about the statistics associated with them. This is partly because of a phenomenon I noticed when playing Scramble, which is a Zynga version of a Boggle-like game that can be played on Facebook.

The phenomenon is that it seemed quite common for a word to crop up on successive boards - eg. the word "IRON" might appear on one board and then also on the next board. This isn't something I'd particularly noticed playing Boggle - the reason probably being is that Boggle games are substantially slower. Did this mean that the algorithm for generating letters was "cheating", or was it actually to be expected?

The short answer is that it is probably to be expected, though there is a lot more analysis that can be done. Here is a page where the most likely words to appear in a Boggle game are listed. I am assuming this is reliable; it's based on a sample size of 50,000 boards. Notice that the most common 4 letter words will each appear on roughly 5% of boards; the most common 5 letter words will appear on roughly 2% of boards.

Furthermore, from the lower graph, the mode number of 5 letter words is around 8, and the mode number of 4 letter words about 28.

The probability of a common five letter word repeating, then, is roughly 1 - (1 - 0.02)8 - that is, around 15% of the time. But the probability of a common four letter word repeating is 1 - (1 - 0.05)28 - that is, around 76% of the time. The probability of a specific word repeating in successive games is much lower - even for a common four letter word, only 5% of the time. But it doesn't have to be a specific word - you just have to notice any word being repeated to think - "That's odd, I had that in the last game."

More geeky numbery stuff to come another time, I expect .... and H/T Sofia Knutson for the link.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tax relief on pension to be reduced

Child benefit cuts and increases in university fees are going to hurt people who are going to struggle to afford it (I am really not happy with people taking on mortgage-sized loans before they have even started working, whether it's for a degree or for flying training). However, I think reducing tax relief on pensions is a good idea.

Paying into a pension currently represents one of the tidiest ways of evading - or at least, deferring - payment of tax for those people who fundamentally don't need the money to live on. In a fair number of cases, I would argue, people are making large payments (or getting employers to make large payments) into pension schemes because they simply don't need the money now. Forget the "people earning higher rate tax are extremely rich" thing: if you can afford for over £50,000 per year of what your employer is prepared to give you to go straight into a pension scheme - you know you are not going to need to spend it until you stop working! - then a) this is clearly money you don't need at the moment and b) your expectation of what you need from a pension in the future clearly has little to do with what you will need to live on when you are unable to work any more.

The fact that there has been none of the outcry over reduction of pension tax relief compared to what there was relating to child benefit and university fees is pretty suggestive of a silent "it's a fair cop" to me....

"English Next" - David Graddol

Well, this was interesting.

It's freely downloadable (duh!) and was suggested background reading prior to starting my next OU course, Exploring the English Language.

It was a brief examination of how the English language has developed as a world language through history, and a suggestion as to how things may develop in the next few years. Graddol argues that we may be at a unique point in history. In the past, English was, to a degree, regarded as the language of "civilised discourse" - particularly by those who wrote its history - ie. largely English-speaking intellectuals. This forced most non-English-first-language people into the role of the "outgroup", since the process of language learning marks native speakers out as the "gold standard", and regardless of whether people were "selected" to speak English or sought to learn, they would always be likely to be distinctively worse at the language then a native speaker.

Various things have led to this changing. The widespread adoption of English as a second language, or in some cases even the use of English as the principle language of education even at secondary level, means that we are currently seeing non-native English speakers of all ages from primary school upwards being taught English - there are possibly as many as 2 billion English learners around the world. China alone produces 20 million more English speakers each year!

Such an explosion lies well beyond the ability of the traditional EFL or ESOL system to support. As a consequence, English is being taught increasingly by non-native speakers. Further, once English is largely known worldwide, spoken increasingly in homes and educational institutions and so on, the demand for English teaching will rapidly be transformed - the need will be for people who can teach English to small children, rather than adults, and as remedial tuition, rather than to the brightest and most ambitious.

The coming era will also be marked by ability in English not being related to accuracy according to native English standards, but by competencies in areas of relevance to the user. The privileged position of the native speaker will thus slip away. Furthermore, as the world population becomes more plurilingual (to use the Euro-in-phrase), it will become harder and more expensive for native English speakers to learn and become competent in other languages, which will (although Graddol didn't labour this point) make them likely to be regarded as the "backward" ones in the new world linguistic order.

Thought-provoking. I'm looking forward to this course ....

Monday, October 11, 2010

Thoughts on "How Fair is Britain?"

This report was written by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, under the chairmanship of Trevor Phillips. It uncovered some interesting facts (at least, as they were reported by the Telegraph).

One of the things that struck me, following some discussion about what constitutes "extreme" wealth, was how this group analysed wealth. The Telegraph report said:
The total net household wealth of the top 10 per cent of the population is £853,000, almost 100 times more than the net wealth of the poorest 10 per cent, which is at most £8,800.
No reference to income is made at all in the context of what constitutes a wealthy family here, and a little analysis of this shows why. If I had a mortgage for £850,000 (supposing such a thing were possible), the interest alone (at around 5%) would cost me in excess of £40,000 per year. To pay £40,000 per year, I'd need additional gross income of £67,000 per year.

Or put it another way. A house worth £850,000 per year would probably be let out for £2500 or more per month. That's an annual income of £30,000.

To live in a house worth that amount not paying rent or mortgage is equivalent to an annual income of somewhere between £30,000 and £70,000. A person may technically have no income at all, and yet the benefit of their capital would mean that they were still better off than somebody earning close to the higher tax threshold.

This is consonant with my intuitive feeling that wealth has a lot more to do with ownership of capital, rather than income. It also helps to explain why even though I am comfortably inside the 10% of top earners, I have never felt as though we were well off, compared to the sort of people at whom newspaper supplements are pitched - if we owned our house, rather than having a large mortgage, we would still not be close to being amongst the 10% most wealthy, according to this measure. And yet the removal of child benefit, the suggested increases in university fees, and tax rises are all based on income, not ownership of capital - they are not targeted at the most wealthy at all.

The headline in the Telegraph talked about how the "coping" classes were struggling - "coping" in the sense of coping with an aging generation of parents and an increasingly expensive generation of children - and suggested that one of the emphases of the EHRC was that continuing to place increasing burdens on this group of people would lead to a backlash or breakdown.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Child benefit and high earners

The universal child benefit is to cease where one earner in a household is in one of the higher tax brackets. Well ... to be fair, we could see it coming, and it's not like we NEED it, I guess. However, while we're at it, are people earning above the higher tax threshold entitled to the state old-age pension? Should we get rid of that, too - another unnecessary universal benefit?

Also, that's another £2500 income we won't have, compared to a lower- earning family of the same size. Incidentally, if I wasn't around, would my wife then get this benefit reinstated? I thought this government were the family-friendly lot?

And I really hope that the government does what it has muttered about if it gets the deficit down, and reduces the tax burden at some stage. The proportion of my income that is paid as tax is pretty staggering. People "in my line" working almost anywhere else take home significantly larger amounts of money.

Grumble grumble.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Can I help you, reader?

A little corner of Twitter fluttered with discussion about the merits of including a glossary in a work of fiction earlier today. It was related to my review of Zoo City, below. There were a fair number of words in Zoo City with which I wasn't familiar - slightly unusual in itself, as I do have a relatively large vocabulary, I guess!

My initial thought was that they were all made up, but Lauren Beukes herself pointed out that they were actually South African slang. She graciously avoided saying so, but I felt guilty of hemisphericist thinking - if I (white, English-speaking, Northern Hemisphere) didn't recognise a word, it must not exist.

Various options were considered to help non-SA readers overcome this. Electronic versions of the book could have mouse-over contextual explanations. A glossary could be added to the book. But upon reflection, the glossary idea was set aside. I think this is a correct choice. There is a place and time for breaking down or stepping through a text, and as was pointed out, there already exist plenty of resources that could help the reader analyse in more detail. But when a person is reading a book, one fundamental thing should be the pace of the read.

For a SA readership, the use of local slang would not interfere with the pace of the book. Non-SA readers have a choice. They could skip the book because they can't cope with the cross-cultural experience. If so, they risk isolating themselves from all cultures other than their own. Or they could accept the book on its own terms, something that represents a voice from another culture ("Framling"), either mentally blipping out the hard bits, and hoping it doesn't interfere too much with the plot, or where necessary accepting a slower read and researching the meaning.

Everything we read is at some cultural distance from us. In the USUK today, we have reached the stage where we accept things like "high school" and "parking lot" as congruent with our own culture, even though it would actually be unusual to refer to things as such in the UK. Other things have become indistinguishable ("shopping mall" with its "food court").

When we read other books, we find ourselves at different cultural distances from our normal lives. How much does the world of Jane Austen, say, or Dostoyevsky, or Ginsberg, really have to do with us? And yet, we become used to inhabiting those mental spaces, even comfortable. It is very unusual, and quite exciting, to have the opportunity to be exposed to something which by occupying a cultural space we've not visited before, really opens our minds to new ideas. It also shows that culture isn't homogeneous - that it's not the case that the whole world aspires to a kind of suburban American dream. I think this was one of the reasons I so enjoyed Beukes' books. To attempt to simplify this with a glossary, flattening the "Framling" ideas into our own cultural grid, would be a retrograde step.

"Zoo City" by Lauren Beukes

From here.

Having read Beukes' previous book, Moxyland, I was really pleased to have the opportunity to review this one. It didn't disappoint.

Beukes is South African, and cut her writing teeth (as it were) as a journalist. Her command of writing is evident - it is a gripping and subtle read. More significantly for a novel, it is a work of strong imagination - labelling is a little difficult: cyberpunk kind of covers it partly, but there's also some SF and fantasy/magic in there.

This is a world in which killing somebody results in you acquiring an animal "familiar" - think of Pullman's daemons in His Dark Materials - which in turn leads to you being stigmatised in mainstream society. However, these bonds strengthen your ability to do "magic" - I think! The first person (there's only one in this book, after the disorientating four in Moxyland!), Zinzi, has a sloth as her familiar, and the circumstances in which she acquired the sloth are only gradually revealed. Her magical gift is the ability to find lost items - things of emotional significance to a person she senses as being connected to them through a psychic thread, which she can follow to locate them.

When a client dies before paying her, she takes on the task of trying to find a lost teen popstar ... and it hardly comes as a surprise that there is more to this case than meets the eye.

It is set against a backdrop of political asylum, urban decay and civil unrest within Africa. It is pretty violent, and yet, as far as I can tell, reasonable in its portrayal of society, as modified by the existential changes that follow from this SF/fantasy premise.

What else is good? It's the right length - around 350 pages! The book comes with extras - an offer for a tie-in CD, some short stories based on Moxyland, acknowledgements which filled in some background. It's interesting to see how the new media have changed the process of writing - Beukes was assisted by various people online and IRL along the way, which leads to interesting echoey depths to the book.

Two niggles. Firstly, the castlist is quite long, and also SA slang terms were used liberally, which I found somewhat disorientating. I probably need to read it again to make sure I've untangled everything. And secondly, the book is very "of the moment" - Lady Gaga, the South African World Cup and a new iPhone being typical reference points. The downside of the largescale absorption of things like this from the culture is that it's fairly likely that a good number of them will, within a couple of years, look dated. That will be a shame - the writing in Zoo City merits a good shelflife.