Bunhill: At last - the truth about statistics

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The Independent Online
WHENEVER there's a strike, you can count on the press carrying calculations from some business organisation or other that it will cost the British economy x million pounds and we'll all die. Being a curmudgeonly old cynic, I'd always thought that these sums wouldn't grace the back of any self-respecting envelope, and last week I got the chance to put this hypothesis to the test.

Monday's Tube strike combined with the interest in England's opening World Cup match would, it was claimed, deprive us of pounds 35m in lost productivity. How so? Well, apparently, London's GDP is around pounds 15bn a year, so you divide this by the number of working days and look at the number of people needed to achieve that daily figure. Then take a punt on how many employees wouldn't have been able to get to the office, make allowances for working from home, recovering lost time the next day etc, and you've got a pounds 35m shortfall. It's not arbitrary but it is rough and ready and you could argue about the accuracy of such calculations all the way home - if it wasn't for the fact you'd never left home in the first place. But more to the point with these sums, what is the point? Of course strikes disrupt business; they'd be no use if they didn't.

All of which pales into insignificance next to the festival of figures that is the World Cup. Here's just two vital statistics: 15 million people over here watched England's first game and they got through 22 million pints of beer - between them, that is, not individually as in Marseilles.

There is some science to how our TV-viewing habits are measured. Every year researchers study census surveys, come up with a representative social and economic sample of the population, and fit them up with set-top boxes that record what they're watching. These figures can then be extrapolated for the whole of Britain's TV-viewing public.

But what about the 22 million pints? Well, apparently, researchers commissioned by the big brewers study census surveys, come up with a representative sample and then stick "intelligent" boxes in their fridges which recognise beer cans and can pinpoint the exact time they are opened. These figures can then be cross-referenced with TV ratings to show the correlation between beer drinking and football viewing. Funny old game, statistics.

YOU'VE had enough of it already, haven't you? You can't hear yourself think for people talking about it, you can't watch anything else on TV - the sport has taken over. And you're right: this golf frenzy must stop.

You'd imagine the World Cup would be enough for most corporate sponsors, but not so. EDS, the information technology giant which is running an "official" World Cup website, has now turned its attention to Poland. On Tuesday and Wednesday EDS is sponsoring a women's pro-am golf tournament on the remote island of Wolin, and while this move may seem eccentric, there is some business logic to it.

For a start, Poland didn't qualify for the World Cup, so there could be more interest in the golf than you might think. Second, the sport is coming of age in Poland after years of being regarded as elitist. And third, as Western businesses try to build a presence in eastern Europe, golf is seen as a great way of making contacts. That the east should now have to suffer patterned pullovers, dodgy trousers and endless conversations about handicaps seems to me unforgivable.

On Thursday, meanwhile, we have the Alfred Dunhill Celebrity Challenge, in which captains of industry will line up alongside show business stars at Wentworth. After his frankly lacklustre performance on Stockholm's premier crazy putting course in May, Bunhill will not be taking part.

IN THE brave new world of can-do computers, systems will go out of their way to be friendly. Even if your PC crashes, wiping out articles, newspaper pages and 200,000-word novels, at least it will take the trouble to talk you through the problem. At Bunhill Towers the helpful explanation runs as follows: "The application 'unknown' has unexpectedly quit. Please restart."

Admittedly, there is a degree of tautology here in that the unknown is usually unexpected, but the message is not without parallels in real life: as an epitaph for successive Conservative employment ministers, for example, it is quite brilliant. Nevertheless, I could do with technology that's a bit more plain talking.

And now the answer may be at hand, courtesy of FreeSpeech 98, a piece of voice-recognition software from the Dutch electronics giant Philips. The product won't turn a machine into a master of the pithy phrase, unless it is to record and play back your inevitable expletives, but it will allow you to talk plainly to your computer.

Available in Britain at the end of this year for pounds 24.99, FreeSpeech promises to revolutionise the way we compose prose. Here's the story so far. First we produced copy on the typewriter, which in the case of Bunhill the Elder was wired up to the wastepaper basket. Then we discovered word processing, which allowed us to correct documents without having to scrunch them up and start again. Now we have a system with a 64,000-word vocabulary that will allow our thoughts to come tumbling out of our mouths and straight on to the screen via a microphone. In other words it's speak first, edit later - the ultimate antidote to paralysis by analysis - though what colleagues will make of our bizarre monologues is anyone's guess.