Cloud Chamber 39
July 1992

'A Type I error occurs when a true hypothesis is rejected, and a Type II error occurs when a false hypothesis is accepted. [...] When money is being distributed, the stereotypical liberal tries especially hard to avoid Type I errors (the deserving not receiving their share), whereas the stereotypical conservative is more concerned with avoiding Type II errors (the undeserving receiving more than their share). When punishment is being meted out, the stereotypical conservative is more concerned with avoiding Type I errors (the deserving or guilty not receiving their due), whereas the stereotypical liberal worries more about avoiding Type II errors (the undeserving or innocent receiving undue punishment).'

John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy, 1988.

At last, a mathematician reveals how to tell them apart! (He's American and thus uses no term more inflammatorily left-wing than 'liberal', it being well known in the Midwest that 'socialists' are dread fanged creatures from the nethermost pits. They exhale flame and smoke too, Abigail.)

This is the angle from which the reasoning behind the poll tax must be understood. It would be a Type I error if anyone didn't pay; the simple justice of a universal flat rate might be self-evident if you happen to think that way; it is conceivable that the Thatcherites rather expected the change from rates to be a popular one.

I quoted the Paulos passage when I wrote to my MP – the loathly Sir Gerard Vaughan – begging to have the philosophy of the tax explained to me in terms that my simple mind could comprehend. If it was a universal and just tax on people, why exactly did Hazel and I both have to pay twice? If it remained a tax on property, why exactly did both our properties have to pay twice? Of course, I went on, I was aware that merely by separating from my wife and spending most of the year in the Harlech flat I could halve our poll tax bill, but was this really the precise resurgence of family values which his party was attempting to encourage?

Needless to say, the reply was merely an icy postcard of acknowledgement which subliminally radiated the message SOD OFF on every band of the spectrum.

But of course, no matter what John Allen Paulos thinks of their attitude to Type II errors, a lot of socialists might have abruptly withdrawn their sympathy when that Harlech flat was mentioned. How dare anyone (except selected Labour MPs and other ideologically sound persons) have two houses? Aparently it would be more all right if I owned a car (which I don't) costing as much as or more than that titchy flat; or if instead of the flat we had a slightly bigger Reading house, making the total property (Equals Theft) value the same; or even, in some circles, if the second place were out of the way in another country....

(Funnily enough, despite what you hear, the Welsh locals are extremely friendly to people like us who know our place – that is, acquire a flat in a large, unpopular and half-empty estate rather a cottage in some tiny hamlet where frequently absent owners would indeed eat like tooth decay at village life.)

Well, perhaps I protest too much, being over-intimidated by the output of the guilt industry. Can we have the next quotation, please?

'You see that this wrought-iron plate is not flat: it sticks up a little here towards the left – "cockles", as we say. How shall we flatten it? Obviously, you reply, by hitting down on the part that is prominent. Well, here is a hammer, and I give the plate a blow as you advise. Harder, you say. Still no effect. Another stroke? Well, there is one, and another, and another. The prominence remains, you see: the evil is as great as ever – greater, indeed. But this is not all. Look at the wrap which the plate has got near the opposite edge. Where it was flat before it is now curved. A pretty bungle we have made of it. Instead of curing the original defect, we have produced a second. Had we asked an artizan practised in "planishing", as it is called, he would have told us that no good was to be done, but only mischief, by hitting down on the projecting part. He would have taught us how to give variously-directed and specially-adjusted blows with a hammer elsewhere: so attacking the evil not by direct but by indirect actions. The required process is less simple than you thought. Even a sheet of metal is not to be successfully dealt with after those common-sense methods in which you have so much confidence. What, then, shall we say about a society? "Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?" asks Hamlet. Is humanity more readily straightened than an iron plate?'

Herbert Spencer, The Study of Sociology, 1875.

Or, in short, I don't trust the bastards to get anything right. Spencer actually went on to point out that in 1617 Scotland tried to reduce drunkenness by clamping down on the sale of booze: and, what a surprise, gin consumption went up. This information was available to the proponents of Prohibition in the USA and the wagers of the eternal war against (in particular) the killer cannabis everywhere. The only thing we learn from history....

I keep muttering about being unaligned and not liking any political party much, but Charles Platt rumbled me. A few years ago (having turned into such a thoroughly acclimatized American that I had to be employed to translate one of his books back into English for publication over here) Charles decided to become a libertarian – causing evil-minded men like Chris Priest to suggest that, as libertarian US sf writers tended to have names like F.Paul Wilson and L.Neil Smith etc, Charles must henceforth be known as C.Michael Platt. He then got his hands on a questionnaire that was supposed to uncover the hidden libertarian in us all, and, being also Charles the software maniac, converted it into a deeply naff IBM program. (If anyone wants a copy...?) As you select answers to multiple-choice questions, a little cursor blot moves up and down on axes supposedly denoting preferences in personal and economic freedom. If you stay in the middle area you are a wishy-washy unaligned centrist, fie on you. Bottom left and right are Socialists and Conservatives; top left and right are Liberals and Libertarians. Charles seemed to assume that all sensible and intelligent folk would, if they answered honestly, sooner or later hear the trumpets sounding for them at top right. Try as we would, Chris Priest and I invariably found ourselves slithering gradually up and up, left and left.... Oh God, does this mean we have to join the Lib Dems?

Of course the 'test' might be slanted a bit. This is why I encourage the IBM owners among us to try it and have all their preconceptions savagely unaltered. (Free optional virus with every disk.)

Quite a bit of US right-wing libertarian sf has come under the Langford scrutiny. There are two flavours, the moderate (whose notion of utopia is the removal of all laws except the two basic ones essential to any workable civilization, being the right to bear arms and statutory flogging for debtors) and the Heinlein (enshrining the right to bear arms, the right to shoot anyone who is impolite to you, the right to do what the hell you like provided you are one of the Good People ... while for non-Good People there are the rights to keep very still, to breathe evenly through the nose after asking permission, and to get shot).

Our first Glorious People's Mailing

Wilf: All very well to have fantasies of clamping politicans into political computer simulations and shooting them if they can't break even, but (a) if there were such a thing as a halfway workable simulation we possibly wouldn't be in this mess of a recession; (b) if the recession is a world phenomenon, standards of living fall everywhere, and by your rules we shoot the lot, what comes next? I am reminded of the uncoveted post of Supreme President in Sheckley's 'A Ticket to Tranai', where anyone at all can become S.P. by merely volunteering ... and anyone else at all can at any time step into the voting booth to register dissatisfaction with the regime by pressing the button that blows the S.P. into smoking fragments.

Langford: Too short. I can only deduce that the silly twerp rushed to do it by the end of May, little knowing....

Abigail: Small-time (you should excuse the phrase) writers have been having a rough ride since antiquity – Grub Street, the pulps, Orwell's harrowing account of being a hack reviewer (Cyril Connolly's was more fun to read but evoked zero sympathy because he was evidently enjoying the agony far too much, or at any rate the posing about it).... Sf writers are supposed to get help from SFWA, now SFFWA, but if you live outside the States you might as well forget it – a point the unwary European discovers only some time after being permitted to pay full membership whack for boring publications which cross the Atlantic by dugout or floating bottle. The Society of Authors does help when one's in real trouble, but that tends to mean an actual book contract and some flagrant violation of it. Is a real writers' union even possible?

Roz: Changing names for obscure 'image' reasons and throwing out accumulated goodwill is a strangely common LibDem practice. But I sympathized with US semipro publisher Doug Fratz, who altered his well-established sf magazine's name to Quantum. He was fed up with witty fan remarks and the disappointment of soft-porn entrepreneurs who'd ordered stocks of the erstwhile Thrust.

Ken: It's a pity that Joseph and Judith bagged the best APA title of all, long before this thing was even a frosty twinkle in the eye. In my non-committal, semi-aligned way, I could really live with Fuck the Tories. [23/7/92]