How many British women want to have no children?

I was astounded by a particular statistic in a piece about Mother’s Day by Donna Ferguson in today’s Guardian:

About one in five (18%) of British women aged 45 are childless, the Office for National Statistics revealed last year, and Britain has one of the world’s highest rates of childlessness among women aged 40-44.

For some women, this will be by choice – but for many others it will not be. Only 0.67% of British women aged 15-39 do not want to have children, according to a global survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). To put this in context, the eurozone average is 1.5%, meaning fertile women in Britain who do not want to be mothers are among one of the smallest minorities measured in Europe.

Only 0.67% – really? Less than half the EU average? I was so surprised I had to look up the original source. Sure enough, the story is more complex. Here’s the full table from the OECD Excel file containing the 0.67% figure:

According to the table, 20.26% – over a fifth of British women – have no ideal number of children, or they don’t know. That’s the highest proportion in the EU, and very possibly the sort of socially-acceptable response a woman might prefer to give in place of the truth that they’re embarrassed or afraid to say. As a paper on “childlessness” by Professor of Demography and Social Statistics Ann Berrington notes,

…there may be a social desirability effect whereby British respondents may be unwilling to express a desire to remain childless, as British society and media tend to have a pro-natalist bias

There are other peculiarities. How is it possible that 0.00% of women in Estonia want no children? A glance at the population pyramid for Estonia shows there are roughly 180,000 women aged 15-39. 0.0049% of that is 882. So, in all of Estonia, there are only 882 women in that age range who truly don’t want any children? At the very least, the use of two decimal points implies a level of accuracy that is almost certainly unwarranted.

(Update: In the comments, sev points out that the table I show above, which is the same used by the Guardian as the basis for their article, is about the ideal general number of children in a family. That’s very different from the personal ideal number of children. The former would pose the question “Generally speaking, what do you think is the ideal number of children for a family?”; the latter would ask “And for you personally, what would be the ideal number if children you would like to have or would have liked to have? ” So, in conclusion, the Guardian article is completely wrong, and you can more or less ignore the paragraphs above as well…)

I haven’t been able to find any information about how the OECD figures were gathered so it’d be premature for me to go much further, but this wouldn’t be the first time a survey didn’t accurately reveal people’s true preferences; just for comparison, a 2014 paper by Berrington and Pattaro, using data from a large British cohort study, showed that in 1980, 6.2% of women aged 23 wanted no children – a number ten times that of the OECD results.

Numbers have power. If you’re going to use statistics in an article as emotive as one about “childless” women (or “childfree”, as many prefer), you best be sure they’re rock solid. Because if you confidently state that practically zero women in the UK want no children, and in reality there are more, then you are unnecessarily othering those women and their choices.

This article is trying to be sympathetic, but in reality, it’s making people feel alone – and it might be totally wrong.

Alex Pareene on the link between the profitability and ethics of newspapers in the Columbia Journalism Review:

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that American journalism’s professional norms around fairness and ethics emerged at a time when newspapers and magazines were good investments for normal financial reasons. Safe investments attract safe corporate investors. Corporations like clear standards of conduct and don’t like offending huge numbers of potential customers, which is how Yellow Journalism gave way to “All the News That’s Fit to Print” and the mainstream media as we knew it. The market played a big role in determining content. A big city paper could lean a little to the left or the right, but it couldn’t go full–John Birch or all–in Yippie without losing the thing that gave it power: monopolistic access to the eyeballs of the city’s literate adults.

We can’t afford your perfectionism

For a long time, I refused to pay for membership to The Guardian despite reading it multiple times a day. “Fifty pounds?!” I’d cry. “And for what? Shit I don’t need and junk mail? I’ll pay when it’s half the price and they fire Jonathan Jones.”

I was being a dick. If The Guardian disappeared tomorrow, I’d be all over Twitter rending my clothes. I really do appreciate their journalism and commentary, and while a small part of me would be glad to see the back of their anodyne lifestyle articles and flaming garbage pile of a comments section, and yes, Jonathan Jones, I’d regret not having done more to support them.

There is a segment of the population — let’s call them Silicon Valley Optimisers — who feel intellectually and morally superior to the rest of humanity. One can observe them in their natural habitats of Hacker News, Lesswrong, and Slatestarcodex. They work in technology, they earn a good salary, and they want the best.

No, scratch that — truthfully, I spend a lot of time in Optimisation Land. We want the best, because the world and the conomy expects the best from us. We are hyperanalytical cost-benefit maximisers. There is no charity so pure that we can’t criticise for wasting money; no non-profit too noble to snipe at for using the wrong tech stack; no institution too valuable to be explosively disrupted.

Whether it’s journalism, healthcare, transportation, social security, or politics, we could do better, if we tried. But we don’t care to try, because we’re too busy trying to make shit tons of money, and you don’t make money by working in non-profits or journalism. So fuck anyone else for trying and failing to attain perfection, and what’s more, fuck them for having the temerity to ask us for our hard-earned cash.

The time for that attitude is well and truly over. We cannot afford your perfectionism any more.

If you read the New York Times or the Washington Post, or you listen to NPR, or you value living in a society with civil liberties, you must support those organisations — even if you object to a lot of what they do. The people working there are doing hard work for comparatively little pay, and they need your support.

If you’re always waiting to donate to the perfect organisation that deserves your money, you will never be part of the solution. You will be part of the problem.

The Guardian is not going to fire Jonathan Jones, as much as I might complain. They probably aren’t going to change their shitty comments system, even though I was told several years ago that it was happening ‘any time now’. And like the NYT and Washington Post, they aren’t going to stop producing hard-hitting investigating journalism that tries to speak truth to power. So if that’s something you value, you need to support them now.

Likewise, organisations like Liberty, the ACLU, and the Southern Poverty Law Center — they may be inefficient. They may do political things that irritate you. But if you share their ideals, you need to support them now.

Don’t be an Optimiser. Be a Human.

Photo CC-BY Trevor Hurlbut

Guardian comments are destroying civilization

A vast swathe of people now believe that it’s impossible to have intelligent debate online. This is not an unreasonable belief; scroll down on any newspaper website, let alone YouTube, and you’ll discover the shouting matches that inhabit most comments sections. Jessica Valenti recently wondered whether we shouldn’t simply shut down all comments, like Popular Science and, in part, The Verge, have done. Of the Guardian, she said:

My own exhaustion with comments these days has less to do with explicit harassment – which, at places like the Guardian, is swiftly taken care of. (Thank you, moderators!) Rather, it’s the never-ending stream of derision that women, people of color and other marginalized communities endure; the constant insistence that you or what you write is stupid or that your platform is undeserved. Yes, I’m sure straight, white, male writers get this kind of response too – but it’s not nearly as often and not nearly as nasty.

It is strange that she praises the Guardian’s moderators for taking down explicit harassment, but doesn’t consider that they could also remove the ‘never-ending stream of derision’. When The Times or The Telegraph choose which letters to publish in their printed editions, we don’t consider the letters that didn’t fit as having been censored. And just because web pages can be infinitely long doesn’t mean that newspapers suddenly have an obligation to publish everything.

It’s clear the writers and editors at the Guardian care deeply about combatting sexism and racism; that much is evident through the paper. That’s why I regard their refusal to properly moderate their comments to be an astonishing abandonment of principle. It is not a question of free speech or censorship – people may take their hateful speech elsewhere online, and rage at authors to their heart’s content. It just doesn’t have to happen on the article itself. And if it is a question of cost, then remove the comments entirely.

Unmoderated comments sections like the Guardian’s may start out well, but they inevitably succumb to entropy, giving prominence to those who have effectively unlimited time to shout and argue. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has considered trying to reason with ignorant commenters, only to conclude that they have far more time than me, and far less inclination to listen. The transient nature of articles and comments doesn’t help; why bother arguing that sexism is real for the tenth time on the tenth article?

But the real reason why I detest what the Guardian is doing is because their comments sections are, bit by bit, contributing to defeatism and pessimism. The unrepentent toxicity held within them makes it seem as if there’s no point trying to improve the world or change people’s minds. How many times we do hear “I’ve lost my faith in humanity after reading the comments”? In reality, the comments that are see are come from a tiny, unrepresentative sample of the population – but because they are supposedly open to all and they represent some of the little free conversation we see amongst strangers, we conclude that they are representative.

Well, they are not. And the Guardian’s comments are not representative of what could be possible in a well-moderated community. I’ve often praised Metafilter for it’s excellent moderation, and I was reminded of that by a thread in which someone complained their ‘completely harmless’ comments had been deleted for no reason. A moderator explained:

For context, this is about a couple of comments deleted from the thread about how pop songs are all written by the same guy (link goes to my note in the thread). The comments were about Taylor Swift’s short-shorts and her legs. My prediction was, this would cause a pointless derailing fight in the thread, so I deleted them. These were the comments:

“These kids today probably don’t have time to write. The energy they put into these elaborate stage shows. Plus TayTay walking around New York in her short shorts avoiding the paparazzi…”


“I got a kick out of one pic of Taylor and her legs sitting on the floor of a fabulous all white garret jotting down tablature.”

You may look at those comments and think, but there’s no outright harassment, how could they be moderated? Well, as a few people pointed out, they are sexist and gross. People are free to be sexist and gross in their own homes or with their friends – but not on Metafilter. When you read Metafilter, you do not conclude that the world is composed of sweetness and light; people often have strong disagreements there (but not violent disagreements). You would conclude, however, that it is possible for people to change and learn and be reasonable; that you can have faith in humanity.

And if you criticise Metafilter for not being representative either, because it has full-time moderators, then you would be criticising the entire project of civilisation; the idea that we can organise ourselves and improve our culture in a way that makes the world better, not worse.

Peak Ad Irritation

Using Adblock on my desktop browser gives me a completely unrealistic view of the internet. Websites magically become temples to content and information; they are unsullied by commercial interests and bias; they place my interests as a reader above all else. I can’t imagine using the internet without it. I realise I’m potentially depriving sites of ad revenue (which is why I subscribe my favourites) but I confess I don’t find it hard to justify.

You can’t get an adblocker for Safari on the iPhone or iPad. For some reason this hasn’t bothered me in the past, partly because I used Instapaper and RSS readers a lot, and partly because zooming into specific columns of text meant that ads in sidebars tended to be hidden.

But no longer. Cast your eyes upon this travesty:

Captured from my iPad from the Guardian yesterday. The ad animation is artificially lengthened in this video due to the capturing process, but when I timed it separately, it lasted for 30 seconds (15 seconds, looped twice).

The bright colours combined with the motion graphics made it impossible for me to concentrate on reading the article – and because it was in-line with the text, and because the iPad shows quite a lot of text in a single screen, I couldn’t simply scroll past it quickly as I might do on a phone. My only option was to turn on Reader mode, stripping out all the noise from the page.

I dearly hope that distracting ads like this don’t become more common, as I’ll have to start using Reader mode all the time, or investigate using an alternative browser that can block ads (on Android, I believe Firefox can do this through extensions).

Thoughts on consistency in tablet news apps

A few months ago, I finally had what I’d been dreaming of for years – digital delivery of every single magazine and newspaper I read. No more stacks of New Yorkers and Economists lingering on tables waiting to be given away (or more likely, recycled); no more hunting for all the bits of subscription forms hiding in The Atlantic. I was free and the iPad did it all. Even better, I discovered that the New Yorker made far more sense as an actual reporting magazine when you received in on time rather than one week ‘late’ in the UK.

Of course, it hasn’t all been perfect. Each magazine has a completely different method of operation and user interface that conspires to frustrate me in big ways and small. Before a recent trip abroad I dutifully opened up every single content app and synced everything, but The Atlantic proved too wily and when I tried to read the magazine while offline, it sniffily informed me that another update was required. Thanks for nothing. It turns out that because the app delivers both web content and magazine content, it’s often confusing whether you’ve actually downloaded the whole magazine or not.

I shall refrain from going too much into The Atlantic app’s failings (powered by Rarewire) as a reading experience; the fact that it delivers magazine pages as images that are just-about-but-not-quite readable without zooming in; the practically non-existent navigation; the weird text-only mode that is missing images (at least when offline). The short story is that it has very little in common with other iPad reading experiences – apart from, presumably, other Rarewire apps – which is more than enough to cause irritation.

The Atlantic 2

The Economist has been cited as one of the best magazine apps out there. I can’t disagree – it’s simple and it works well. I don’t understand why it isn’t on Newsstand yet, since auto-downloading would be nice, but otherwise I can’t complain. It’s worth noting that you have to swipe left to read the next page though, which sort-of makes sense given its two column layout but is nonetheless at odds with many other apps (other The Atlantic, which doesn’t count).


The New Yorker is an interesting one. It has the usual Conde Nast engine so the download takes forever and frequently hangs (although last week it downloaded itself automatically, which was great). Despite this, I personally think that the New Yorker has one of the best reading experiences out there. The font size and layout is very agreeable and I like the way in which you flick up and down to read through articles. There are plenty of adverts, but it’s easy to skip them and the multiple navigation options allow me to get to where I want to go quickly (i.e. skip the entire first half of the magazine). If only it were faster.

New Yorker 2

The problem with The New Yorker app, though, is that it has all sorts of weird UI quirks. Articles rarely have genuinely interactive elements, and when they do, they behave in all sorts of strange ways. I gather that red links to supplementary material require you to be online, but I wish they were downloaded at the start. I also only realised last month that you could actually tap the ‘buttons’ on the Cartoon Caption competition page to see the nominees and winners; the buttons just don’t look like buttons. I imagine that a lot of other readers have the same problem of just not knowing what the hell is going on. Continue reading “Thoughts on consistency in tablet news apps”

The Right Media at the Right Time

On Wednesday night, I was invited to a Wired UK dinner about ‘The Future of Entertainment’. At the end of the night, we were asked what we thought entertainment would look like in 15 years; some people predicted the death of copyright, others talked about the rise of videogames and live experiences. In a nod to the hosts, I talked about publishing, giving my usual doom-and-gloom analysis about the frankly obvious death of publishers, whether they’re in the music, TV, book or even videogame industry. I think that jolted them a little, and the guy from Conde Nast actually walked out of the room at that point (although, on balance, I don’t think that had anything to do with what I said).

That wasn’t the only time we talked about publishing though; earlier on, there were pointed questions about whether magazines had any future. Given that The New Yorker and The Economist are the healthiest they’ve been for quite some time, I’m not ready to call time on those two magazines yet, and I’m sure that the high end of the market (which Wired UK aspires to) will do just fine. Much of the reason for this is that their content is very expensive to commission and very hard to imitate. It also happens to be presented in a really good format.

Format is important. For instance, I can read a lot of text on the iPhone’s screen without strain, and there are plenty of people out there who spend over an hour a day browsing the web and reading books on the iPhone; it’s certainly more convenient than carrying a bunch of books around, and in any case, you can’t surf the web on a book.

Lately, most of my iPhone reading has been of RSS feeds. I use a great application called Byline that not only downloads and stores the latest news items from my Google Reader feeds, but crucially, it also synchronises the information back, meaning that if I’ve read an item on my iPhone, I won’t have to read it again on my computer. When I’m travelling any distance, it’s a very good way of keeping up to date, and keeping my unread items count from getting too big (I receive, and read, about 500 items every day).

That’s not the only reading I have to keep up with; I have weekly subscriptions to The New Yorker and The Economist, and a monthly subscription to The Atlantic. That’s a lot of pages to be getting on with every week, and if I neglect them – as I did when I spent a month reading Infinite Jest – then the resulting pile can take several days of concentrated reading to get through. During those days, I got the distinct sense that I was on the cusp of losing the battle, and something had to give; I just was trying to read too much, and I was starting to enjoy it less.

A few days ago, I realised there was another problem; I was reading badly. Sure, the iPhone meant that I could read my RSS feeds on the tube, saving precious minutes and providing me with news whole minutes or even hours before I sat down in front of a computer, but it was really a terribly slow way of reading them. At home, not only is the experience of reading RSS feeds much easier, since I have a faster net connection and a much, much bigger screen, but it’s also much better.

Now, whenever I’m tempted to read on my iPhone, I just open up a magazine. Whether I read it at home or on the tube, it’s still the same magazine, with the same high quality layout and high density of text, easily beating the iPhone’s little screen. So far, this is working out splendidly well, and I’m spending less time obsessing over RSS feeds and playing Flight Control on my iPhone, and more time reading quality content; and when I get home, I have more time to read my RSS feeds (which, as mentioned, actually takes less time), watch Mad Men, play games, and read books.

I might still unsubscribe from The Economist and The Atlantic though…

A New York Times Dream

This is a real dream I had, about four hours ago:

I was with a friend in a shop of gadgets and curios – the sort of place that has soap dispensers attached to D-ring clips, or electronic scales with keyboards – when I spotted a odd device on the bottom shelf. It looked like a fax machine with a big bowl on top, and it had the New York Times logo on it.

“What does that do?” I asked, picking it up – it was surprisingly light.

“It prints out issues of the New York Times every day,” said my friend.

“Sweet!” I turned it around, looking for the specs. “Is it a laser printer or an inkjet?”

“Laser printer,” he replied, peering at the shelf label.

“How much does it cost?”


“Wow! We totally have to get this!” Even with the weak pound, $300 was clearly a steal. “But what’s this bowl for?”

“Oh, that’s where you put the pulp in.”

“What, you mean you have to make your own paper?” I asked.

“Yeah, but think about it, you can change the consistency, leave bits in, use different colours…”

“I don’t know…” I said doubtfully. It seemed like a lot of effort to get the paper every day. I put the New York Times machine down, regretfully, and left the shop.

The dream was probably inspired by a quote I saw by Clay Shirky that said “But will the New York Times still exist on paper? Of course, because people will hit the print button,” and this video:

Consuming Passions, Part One

Consuming Passions by Judith Flanders has to be one of the most information-dense books I have ever read. I’m used to blasting through novels in a few hours, but despite finding Consuming Passions extremely interesting, I’ve barely been able to get halfway through its 500 pages after at least a dozen hours.

The book tells the simple yet incredibly intricate story of how the Industrial Revolution changed the consumption habits of British people; from newspapers to holidays to museums to clothing. A lesser (but perhaps more commercially-savvy) author could easily have split this book into five novels; a writer for the New Yorker probably could have spun off several years’ worth of articles. I began putting in bookmarks for particularly interesting pieces of information, and eventually gave up when I realised I’d ruin it that way.

It’s essentially impossible to summarise the book, but there are a few interesting bits and pieces that I’ve pulled out:


Sophie von la Roche, in 1786, wrote to her family in Germany describing the contents of the daily papers (which she numbered in London at twenty-one). The proportion of news to advertisements and announcements was fairly standard:

“The notices in to-day’s paper run: . . .

  1. Plays produced at the Haymarket theatre; names of actors and actresses… following by the prices of the seats…
  2. Plays at the small Sadler’s Wells theatre, where to-day’s programme offers a satire on magnetism and somnambulism in particular, and where tumblers and tight-rope walkers may be seen…
  3. At the Royal Bush, Mr Astley’s amphitheatre; men, boys and girls in trick-riding; fireworks; short comedies and ballets…
  4. Bermondsey Spa, a place where firework displays are held, announces that the scaffolding has been well and strongly made.
  5. The royal Circus; adults and children in trick-riding, children in comedy and pantomime; Italians in dancing and buffoonery.
  6. Two fine large green tortoises for sale.
  7. A notice against some piratical printer.
  8. Discovery of new pills.
  9. Notice of maritime matters…”

This excerpt brought home a few things to me. Firstly, that people in 1786 were really very sophisticated; I’d certainly be interested in seeing a satire on magnetism and somnambulism! I’d always had this bizarre notion that people in the past were somehow slower and less intelligent than we are today; perhaps it’s because we’re trained to view the past through the perfect hindsight-enabling prism of history textbooks. I never really got a feeling of what day to day life was like in my history lessons.

Secondly, I felt vaguely sad that we know so little about life only two hundred years ago. We don’t have many sources for what newspapers were like back then, so we have to resort to summaries like this one.


Early on in the book, there’s a wonderful section describing how retailers, in the space of a few years, effectively invented all of the sales techniques we take for granted today; money-back guarantees, branded produce, paid advertisements, attack ads, puff pieces, and inertia selling.

Inertia selling caught my eye, not merely because it sounds cool and scientific, but because it’s so audacious:

[Wedgwood] pioneered inertia selling, by sending parcels of his goods – some worth as much as £70 – to aristocratic families across Europe, spending £20,000 (altogether the equivalent of several million today), and following up each parcel with a request for payment or the return of the goods. Within a couple of years he had received payment from all but three families.

Wedgwood was evidently the very master of sales, and Flanders provides this brilliant 1770 letter from him to a colleague, describing a whole host of major new selling techniques (marked in bold by Flanders, paragraph breaks by me):

Wo’d you advertise the next season as the silk mercers in Pell mell do,

– Or deliver cards at the hosues of the Nobility & Gentry, & in the City,

– Get leave to make a shew of his Majesty’s Service for a month, & ornament in the Dessert with Ornamental Ewers, flower baskets & Vases

– Or have an Auction at Cobbs room of Statues, Bassreliefs, Pictures, Tripods, Candelabrias, Lamps, Potpouris, Superb Ewers, Cisterns, Tablets Etruscan, Porphirys & other Articles not yet expos’d to sale. Make a great route of advertising this Auction, & at the same time mention our rooms in Newport St

– & have another Auction in the full season at Bath of such things as we now have on hand, just sprinkled over with a few new articles to give them an air of novelty to any of our customers who may see them there,

– Or will you trust to a new disposition of the Rooms with the new articles we shall have to put into them & a few modest puffs in the Papers from some of our friends such as I am told there has been one lately in Lloyd’s Chronicle.

Damn, this guy was sharp. No wonder we still know his name now.

Who supports longer copyright?

Various news outlets today have been claiming that the Public ‘support longer copyright’. I quote from the BBC article:

62% of people polled by YouGov for the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) think UK artists should be protected for 95 years, as they are in the US.

I found this very surprising – I can hardly believe that many people in the UK really care about copyright durations, and I imagine that those that do are likely to be opposed to it. This survey, of course, shows that I’m wrong. Or am I? It all depends on the exact question that was asked int he survey. The Observer article puts a slightly different slant on it:

The study, by YouGov, found that 62 per cent of those polled believe British artists should receive the same copyright protection as their US counterparts.

Ah… this is obviously not the same thing as the British public actually wanting 45 years added to copyright. This is the public wanting copyright parity with the US, without necessarily knowing (or being told) what the US or UK copyright regimes actually are. If people were asked the question ‘Do you think British artists should receive the same copyright protection as those in the US?’, I’m hardly surprised that they agreed. Why wouldn’t they? The US seems to be a reasonable enough place, so surely we should have the same copyright rules.

Unfortunately for the BPI, that’s hardly a ringing endorsement for their aim of enriching their members. The simple fact is that they can’t risk an open question of prolonging copyright, because there’s a real chance that most people would be against it, hence the reason for disguising the question.

I would dearly love to find out the exact data gathered by YouGov for this BPI survey. Hopefully it’ll be released next week and we can find out whether I’m right. The problem is that even if I am right, it’s hardly likely that any newspapers will bother changing their articles.

One more quote from the Observer:

Just under 70 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds hold that view, the highest of any age group surveyed. That is likely to surprise some observers, as they are the generation most likely to illegally download songs.

If it surprised you, why didn’t you spend a minute to look into it? Or perhaps that’s not your job as a journalist.