The nonsense of the NOS ‘sex’ survey

In that parallel universe of Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph readers there was a mass explosion of relief this morning. Curtains will have twitched across the nation as the worst fears of many were assuaged with the Daily Mail’s social affairs correspondent (sic) categorically assuring the threatened masses that they were not surrounded by a huge percentage of gay neighbours: it’s official, only one man in 10 is gay and less than a whole woman is a lesbian. What relief then.

Daily Mail story

Today's Daily Mail reassurance to its readers Credit: http://twitter.com/catherine_mayer

I’ll quickly pass by the unquestioning, slovenly and uncritical journalism of the Mail since that is what we must expect, sadly. A more considered appraisal of the National Office of Statistics survey is in the Guardian. But, even there, the report needs to be taken with a massive dose of common sense and comments (I didn’t dare look at the DM’s) raise many of the issues that concern this report.
As someone who has commissioned and helped design some pretty groundbreaking market research in my time, I hesitate to tell the NOS how to do its work. This survey is, as many point out, deeply flawed. I have no issue – albeit by a government paid-for quango –seeking to go where others fear to tread, indeed that maybe their role. But given that every homophobic newspaper would glibly misinterpret unquestioningly its results, it really should have been more careful.
When teaching questionnaire design I always proposed two rules:

  • only seek answers that you can do something with (useful, not just ‘interesting’);
  • only ask questions to which there is a definitive answer and that can actually be answered.

I am not at all sure what purposes the NOS is intending to use its data for: predicting levels of ‘hate crime’ perhaps; managing growth of same sex households and their demands for schools? Mmm.
The question itself is perhaps more interesting: is there a valid answer to the question “What is your sexual group?” Given a list (and the methodology employed by NOS seems to me wholly flawed – why didn’t they use self-administered computer based trade-offs, for example?) first of all assumes that people accept the idea of a group definition. Many would not, yet they might engage in behaviour that is a characteristic, supposedly, of such a defined group (all ‘gay’ men like “Mama Mia”). The behaviour itself simply defines an action at a particular time: so a man who marries a women and has children, then lives with a male partner is what? Depends when you ‘measure’ what behaviour – the relationship, having children, sex with a man or a women. And at what point does the behaviour characterise the person as being part of a ‘sexual group’?
In such complex circumstances people will always moderate their answer to the most favourable light – as they see it – at that particular moment: doctors have rules of thumb for what people say their smoking/drinking/sex habits are. They may also have personal qualifiers that shape their answers: some men who have sex with other men who are the ‘active partner’ do not regard themselves as homosexual at all, but regard their sexual partner as such. That may be a valid description for that person but it wouldn’t have helped in this survey to arrive at a useful, valid answer.
The safest, most reliable way of getting data is to ask about actual events that can be reliably recalled. When did you last have sex with another person? What gender was that person? Do you have sex regularly (monogamously even) with that person? Are you in a long-term relationship? What sex is that person? And so on, building a volume of behavioural information that is more likely to be accurately recalled – but not necessarily truthfully told unless the methodology is secure. Take a group of answers together and you might, only might, be able to lump them into a group behavioural description: gay, bisexual, lesbian, whatever. I’m not going to even attempt to do that!
So, while this survey is interesting, it’s far from useful and probably not valid. If it gives comfort to homophobes then perhaps that can’t be bad. But watch out. Whatever the DM and Telegraph might tell you, the chances are you have a gay, lesbian, transgendered – or just plain heterosexual kinky – neighbour. Keep twitching those curtains.

Rolling back blog history

What’s with the reminiscing stuff? First I get asked to reflect on my own ancient history – politics wise – and then there’s the urge to ensure that all my blogs are got in the same place, again. This latter task is proving tedious technically (anyone out there a Notes Designer who can do me a dump from my Domino Blog?); emotionally jarring (have to read every word and relive the memories), and altogether too time consuming/diverting when I should be writing about now.

Guardian Blog 2003

What the Guardian Weblog looked like in 2003 when it announced the Best British Blog winners

Basically I’ve been through lots of iterations: first off was a Blogger blog (it was this that got the much dined-out-on shortlisting in the inaugural Guardian Best British Blog competition in 2003). These blogs got transferred into several versions of the cutting-edge Lotus software based on Domino Blog, which I had a small part in helping to shape before it was consumed into IBM.

This software allowed me to do things that freebies like Blogger and WordPress couldn’t then do, and it was all hosted on the office servers, so it was effectively free.  And, IMHO, it looked great too.

Peter D Cox in 2003

Using Domino Blog in 2003 until about 2009, this was an early design

Of course, as a by now famous blogger (well, I knew how to do it technically, could string two words together, and got angry about things – the pre-requisites I suppose) it was clear I’d get to have other blogs too. The biggest, and to date the one which has atracted most online comments, often hundreds, was that for the HitItForSix campaign. In the campaign to save the historic Sophia Gardens (part of the Bute Parks) from the desecration of an international cricket arena it was clear, even in June 2005, that people needed a web place to go if they were to campaign effectively. Copies of plans, papers, proposals were often ‘available’ but effectively lost in obscure places and frequently ‘disappeared’ as quickly as they were published. Archiving and recording on H46 was a powerful tool for campaigners and journalists.

HitItFor6 web blog

The campaign blog for HitItForSix, campaigning against Glamorgan Cricket Club's massive cricket arena (and originally ice-rink and pavilion)

Hundreds of blogs later we ultimately lost the campaign  as local politicians rolled over at the lure of a Test Cricket Match in Cardiff. Footnote Tweet:Value of Ashes to Cardiff: prediction June 2009 £116M http://ow.ly/2cfhA , report to #cdfcouncil says £3,577,000 http://ow.ly/2cfhB Compute? 16 July 2010.

Food Blog

The food blog, a nice diversion while it lasted. I'd still like to write a food column: any offers?

Another flattery-got-the-better-of-common-sense-diversion was a food blog. From September 2007 until November that year I managed to write pretty consistently about food eaten, seen and cooked: from sauerkraut to Nigel rip-offs it was great fun while it lasted (and all the blogs are on this site, hence the pre-dominance still of food in the categories!).

Once I became ‘retired’ using the office servers was no longer an option so some consolidation was necessary. Blogger seemed v inflexible and not very designery, and WordPress seemed the choice of ‘serious’ bloggers, which I liked to think I was. So the, as yet unfinished, task of moving things over began.

And there we are. Well almost.

January 30th 2009 saw my first Tweet, though it took about six months to work out what it was all about. Now, 3442 tweets later, I think I’ve got it sussed, have been described as “Cardiff’s acid Tweeter” – a description repeated by the city’s leader at a recent meeting, and by the South Wales Echo (27 July 2010) as one of the five tweeps (people who do) to follow. Tweeting has filled a big hole in the blogsphere for me: giving almost instant reposts to news and events; highlighting and commenting in 140 characters on things that take my fancy; and following others of a like mind (and not) who do the same. It’s great.

And just in case you miss them. I archive them here, on the blog. A neat development. For now, until it all changes again.

So, in seven years blogging has changed a lot, technically and in the writing. The short-and-sharp gets Tweeted. Much comment gets cuckoo’ed out onto other people’s blogs where you fight for a voice amongst an often crowded space. And nice people ask you to write for them. All in all then, I’ve become a bit of a philandering blogger.

And a postscript: Much of what I have written and the illustrations would not have been possible without the amazing web archive feature on http://web.archive.org/. Let it be a lesson: very little on the web actually disappears.

BBC to give Cardiff’s planning woes a very public airing

Ok, so planning’s not sexy. But it is important and I frequently bore on about it: lately the focus has been dodgy Cardiff Council planning decisions (again) and its Deposit Local Development Plan.

The BBC has taken on a big task to make these subjects fit for human consumption with a 30 minutes long Week in Week Out on Tuesday 23th March (10.35pm BBC One Wales only). Judging from the length of time it has been in preparation, and the care involved (a view based on the endless requests for documentary proof and evidence that have come my way daily for the past two months) I suspect it’ll be a pretty robust analysis.

I’ve had no preview, of course, but I can make some pretty shrewd guesses about the areas that are likely to cause acute embarrassment to Cardiff Council.  The program’s title “Starbucks and stadiums” gives a bit of a clue: might the programme question the city’s relentless drive for more city centre shopping “experiences”, mega-sports-stadiums, and high-rise flats for the (until the recession) upwardly mobile? And does it have a robust and delivable plan for Cardiff’s housing, employment, transport etc in the future?  If it addresses these issues, it will have plenty of ammunition: from politicians who decry the destruction of local communities like Butetown, to academics who question the wisdom of a continued growth thrust in these economically constrained and ecologically threatening times. The programme blurb asks the question: ”who’s benefitted from it all?”

Our council leadership argues that international sporting events are vital to the city’s economic well-being. They are prepared to sacrifice huge sums of taxpayers money and held-in-trust resources like its heritage parks, for kudos and at best, arguable economic benefit. The most recent example concerns Cardiff City Football Club: given land to enable it to build a new stadium, it blithely flogs it off to pay overdue VAT and national insurance. What possible public gain is that – taking ratepayers money to give to HMCR to bail out poor management? It’s a very poor way of developing long-term employment except for a few rich footballers and their board members.

Employment is one area where the council has been under serious criticism from WAG’s planning inspectorate over the Deposit LDP. This document is supposed to set out the plans to support the longterm vision for the city. Cardiff Civic Society (interest declaration, I’m its Chair) warned the council more than a year ago that its approach was flawed and didn’t follow the guidelines. Last year we further contended that it was “unsound” in six areas, housing and employment among them. I know that even more expert, and you would have thought influential, voices were saying the same thing. The council chose to ignore all the warnings and deposited a complete nonsense of a plan that has been forensically dissected by WAG.

I expect on the tv that council leader, Rodney Berman, will trot out his already rehearsed defences: I’m guessing the words, of course, “the LDP idea is flawed” (how come all councils in Wales helped to develop it then?); “WAG is forcing us to build on greenfield sites” (no, it’s saying you have no evidence that you can avoid building on greenfield sites – the whole point of the plan!); “it’s an affront to democracy” (this from the council that consulted 123 citizens over the plan asking them questions no one could reasonably answer); “the Inspectorate won’t tell us what to do with the plan” (oh, they have and you’re very aware of the alternatives, all of them embarrassing and shameful in terms of the cost that has been wasted).

Two days after the tv programme the full council meets to decide what to do with the LDP. Frankly, all and any option is bad for Cardiff. To go back to the drawing board means a planning hiatus, massive embarrassment for politicians, a huge waste of money, and serious questions about council officers’ and members’ competence. To trudge through public hearings where the council attempts to shore up a totally flawed structure with ‘new evidence’ will simply expose even further its paucity of robust, creative solutions for Cardiff’s’ many problems. And it seems that at some point the inspectors’ patience might expire and they declare it unsound anyway.

Strangely, it may turn out to be good for Cardiff in the end. What the programme might demonstrate is how, for so long, the city has depended on a self-generated aura of ‘capital city-ness’ and that big, brash, often violent planning solutions will succeed. The “we’re not afraid to make difficult decisions” mindset of minor dictators.

Like many people, I think Cardiff needs to take a long, hard, painful look at itself. It needs to question the quality of its decision making, the ease with which it has accepted assertions (like long-term benefit from sporting events) as though they were inviolate facts that would survive recession and global warming. It needs to engage with its civic society (and maybe even its Civic Society!) in a meaningful way so that communities in Butetown, Whitchurch, and Ely and elsewhere might once again be connected.

A local development plan might seem boring, but it’s actually, when used with skill, imagination and vigour, potentially a way of mapping a better future for us all – not just a few.

Now if next week’s half hour on BBC Wales manages to make some of that sound interesting then it will be worth this year’s licence fee.

Surprise? the BBC ignores Wales

Just last week the – increasingly inane – Breaksfast Show on BBC 1 TV was headlining the story about older people being given free admission to swimming pools. At 6.41 am I emailed the show pointing out 1) the story only related to England and 2) Wales had been doing it for years:
“I don’t know about Scotland or Northern Ireland but your news item about swimming should at least point out that us older people in Wales have had free swimming for a long time.
So, do you mean, “the UK government has decided that older people in England should join those in Wales and get free admission to their local swimming pool”?
Please: acknowledge that there are four nations, that we do things differently (free prescriptions, swimming, hospital car parks et al) and credit the devolved governments accordingly ….”
I cannot have been the only one since the bulletin was changed – it became more accurate “in England”, “local authority pools” etc, but still no mention that anywhere else might already be in the lead.
Now theBBC Trust has told the corporation the blindingly obvious – get your national coverage right: make it national, not English, not parochial London. The surprise is not the conclusions, but the surprise at something anyone with half an eye or ear could have detected in 24 hours watching or listening to the BBC.
I used to be agnostic about the idea of the home nations taking control of their own news output. Two things have changed my mind: the ability of the BBC to produce national news programmes (in Welsh, but they are always subtitled as well) for S4C and the absolute inability of London based journalists to get even the simplest things right. So, slash the BBC’s central budgets; devolve news to the nations; boost Wales’ (and Scotland and Nor
thern Ireland’s) indigineous media industries. And if that means lots of narrow minded (bigoted even?), blinkered, second rate London journos getting sacked – bring it on.

Surprise? – the BBC ignores wales?

Just last week the – increasingly inane – Breaksfast Show on BBC 1 TV was headlining the story about older people being given free admission to swimming pools. At 6.41 am I emailed the show pointing out 1) the story only related to England and 2) Wales had been doing it for years:
“I don’t know about Scotland or Northern Ireland but your news item about swimming should at least point out that us older people in Wales have had free swimming for a long time.
So, do you mean, “the UK government has decided that older people in England should join those in Wales and get free admission to their local swimming pool”?
Please: acknowledge that there are four nations, that we do things differently (free prescriptions, swimming, hospital car parks et al) and credit the devolved governments accordingly ….”
I cannot have been the only one since the bulletin was changed – it became more accurate “in England”, “local authority pools” etc, but still no mention that anywhere else might already be in the lead.
Now the BBC Trust has told the corporation the blindingly obvious – get your national coverage right: make it national, not English, not paraochial London. The surprise is not the conclusions, but the surprise at something anyone with half an eye or ear could have detected in 24 hours watching or listening to the BBC.
I used to be agnostic about the idea of the home nations taking control of their own news output. Two things have changed my mind: the ability of the BBC to produce national news programmes (in Welsh, but they are always subtitled as well) for S4C and the absolute inability of London based journalists to get even the simplest things right. So, slash the BBC’s central budgets; devolve news to the nations; boost Wales’ (and Scotland and Northern Ireland’s) indigineous media industries. And if that means lots of narrow minded (bigoted even?), blinkered, second rate London journos getting sacked – bring it on.

Western Mail Letter – Reclaim our space

Reclaim our space
SIR – Business Wales reports (September 6) that a property developer has plans to redevelop the cinema and bar complex outside the Millennium Stadium into new flats and a casino.

It is nearly ten years since Wales’ only Olympic size pool was demolished and the publicly owned land given away because, it was said, that it was essential for safety to have a large open public space outside the stadium.

Instead we have one of the ugliest buildings in Cardiff (a feat hard to pull off when there are so many) that now doesn’t make enough money as bars, glee club and cinema so it has to be turned into a casino.

Where today are the Cardiff councillors who gave away the city’s heritage for peanuts and under false pretences? Where are today’s Cardiff councillors who will stand up to the greed upon greed of property developers and say enough is enough.

Take the space back and make it a public one. And get on with your promise to build the new swimming pool that was supposed to be opened years ago (sorry, I forgot, that too is dependent on building a casino in Cardiff Bay, silly me).

PETER D COX