Stupid Formulæ

I get annoyed by the stupid formulæ used by PR companies to generate nonsense ‘news’ reports about their clients’ products. I’ve done a talk about them at a couple of Skeptics in the Pub events, as well as Barcamps and the like. Email me if you’d like me to do the talk for you. (I’m pretty good.) There is a very cut-down and heavily adapted version of that talk here.

The Telegraph

The Perfect Sitcom

Dr Helen Pilcher, a neuroscientist (according to the Telegraph) whored her name to this ‘research’ which was commissioned by UKTV Gold to promote their endless repeating of that clip of Del Boy falling through the bar: f in the equation means “the amount someone falls over”. This is about the level of humour the Telegraph seems to like, because…

The Perfect Joke

In this case, $n$ represents “the amount someone falls over”, and is raised to the power of “the “Ouch” factor”. It won’t surprise you to learn that this is the work of the same Helen Pilcher, although this time helped by comedian Timandra Harkness, whom I’ve since met, and my understanding is that she isn’t a big fan of these equations either.

But if this one is a satire, it has somewhat backfired, since the Telegraph, being serious investigative journalists, have asked some comedians what they think of the formula. Jimmy Carr, Bernard Manning and Ruby Wax all said it was stupid in their own obnoxious ways, and Nicholas Parsons said much the same thing but more politely.

Why was this in the news? “The Comedy Research Project, a live stage show featuring Helen Pilcher and Timandra Harkness, will be performed at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre on June 15 and 22 [2006].”

The Perfect Day

This was pulled out of the arse of Cliff Arnall (not Lou Reed), a psychologist and former tutor at Cardiff University, because Wall’s Ice Cream asked nicely. The Telegraph notes it “does not take into account the gloomy forecasts for the British economy, fears caused by falling house prices, rising inflation and stagnating pay rises, England not playing in the Euro 2008 and a damper than normal start to the summer”. All the factors in the formula are utterly subjective and the whole thing is worse than most. The comments on the Telegraph pages are fun. This is especially perverse because in 2006 the perfect day was three full days later. (The Telegraph really do obligingly report this, from either end, every time they’re asked.)

The Perfect Bra

formula not supplied

This one is actually real (albeit slightly over the top) research! It could genuinely improve your life (moreso if you are a woman). I know; I was as surprised as you are.

The Perfect Rugby Kick

This is just a shopping list of things that affect a rugby kick. And “y to the power of n represents other factors”. My word. This drivel comes to us no thanks to “Andrew Cushing and Prof Paul Robinson at University College Worcester for the research company QinetiQ”.

The Price Of Cleaning

This is a note that the average wage has increased, listed in terms of how much people lose out on by not being paid to brush their teeth (30p, although it doesn’t say how much they save by not having to get private dental treatment if they don’t brush). Barclaycard convinced Prof Ian Walker, an economist at Warwick University to endorse it.

The Perfect Marriage

formula not supplied

“Prof James Murray of the University of Washington” says this formula has a 94% success rate in predicting if a couple will divorce, although really I’d want to know sensitivity and specificity, otherwise you could conduct a survey of evangelical Christians and the terminally ill, say they’ll all stay together, and declare yourself the winner. They later ran a second article about how it was nonsense.

The Perfect Chip

formula not ready at time of press

That’s right, because Dr Gama Khan won’t just sign off on whatever nonsense Tesco ask – that, or Tesco asked for a big long experimental phase they can publicise for months. Khan says “The competition is intense because everyone wants to go down in history and finally crack the secret of the perfect frozen oven chip. I am looking at a lot of chips. Some days I’m testing them continuously from 9.30am to 4pm. It actually can get quite sickening, particularly when I always smell of chip fat.” And it’s true. Everyone wants a slice of the elusive Nobel Prize in Fast Food.

The Perfect Football Penalty [simplified]

This was commissioned by Ladbrokes, and is credited to “by scientists at John Moores University in Liverpool”, which quickly becomes “Dr David Lewis, a mathematician”. I think this quote tells you all you need to know about the mathematical ability of everyone involved in this report (emphasis mine):

Dr Lewis and his team found the six variables that influence a successful penalty kick are: V = velocity of ball once struck, T = time between placing ball on spot and striking the ball, S = number of steps in run-up to strike, I = time that the ball is struck after goalkeeper initiates his dive, Y = vertical placement of ball from ground, X = horizontal placement of ball from centre and B = striking position of boot.

The Perfect Sandcastle

This simply states the ideal ratio of sand to water. Personally, I would just use the pre-prepared wet sand b the beach, which must surely be about right because it does seem to work. “Prof Matthew Bennett, the head of environmental and geographic sciences, Dr Brian Astin, the head of the School of Conservation Sciences, and Rob Haslam, laboratory and technical services manager, then spent two days testing the samples for their suitability for sandcastle building. … Teletext Holidays, which commissioned the research, will be holding a sandcastle-building championship on July 24 [2004] in Great Yarmouth.” This work was replicated the following year by “an MIT team, led by Sarah Nowak and Arshad Kudrolli” who reached exactly the same conclusion (although they phrased it in a simpler way). This might be nearly useful to some engineers somewhere.

How To Open Champagne

P and T are pressure and temperature. I think this is not made up, although not really that useful in real terms: essentially it says that if you cool the champagne it is less likely to explode on you. This comes from “Dr Steve Smith, a lecturer in wine studies at Coventry University”, who “was commissioned to develop the formula after a Marks & Spencer survey found that 50 per cent of women are too frightened to open a bottle of bubbly because they fear that the cork will fly out prematurely, hitting them or a precious ornament”.

The Perfect Place To Shop

The function $f$ is undefined. “Retail and consumer trends expert Tim Dennison has come up with a formula to help Yellow Pages calculate how diverse and lively high streets are.” It says little town streets are more diverse than city centre ones. Nobody is surprised.

The Perfect Newspaper

no formula

It’s the Telegraph. Shocking. I suspect this is bad self-congratulatory reporting of some tiny little statement the academics made, but then I work for Manchester University so I am biased (although I’m not certain which way).

How To Pour Gravy

According to “Dr Len Fisher, an independent food scientist at Bristol University… who was funded by the manufacturer Bisto”, this is important because “more than 150,000 gallons of gravy is left every week.” Hard to see what Bisto have to gain by this, except of course that they’re in a newspaper.

The Perfect Book

formula not done at time of press

…although it’s going to be Agatha Christie, says Dr Roland Kapferer.

The Perfect Biscuit

formula deemed to complicated for Telegraph readers

This was led by Professor Bronek Wedzicha of Leeds University and “half funded by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and half by United Biscuits.” The researchers insist that this is real research rather than a publicity stunt, and I see no reason not to believe that, especially since they spent £91,000 on it.

The Perfect News Story

never trust your own instincts” but rely on “tried and tested formulas, bland ingredients and using up old scraps and leftovers from the day before, particularly the choicest cuts from the Daily Mail - no matter how stale.

The Mail

The Perfect Day

except when it’s

As in the Telegraph, this was repeated year on year on year on year.

The Perfect Christmas

As covered previously. Presumably even following this formula Christmas is still worse than June 20th.

The Perfect Bacon Butty

Apparently, “the experts at Leeds University tried 700 variations on the traditional bacon butty.” I did my undergraduate degree at Leeds and I can vouch that this is true, although I had no idea it was research. Dr Graham Clayton is to blame for this.

Out of interest, N = force in Newtons required to break the cooked bacon. C = Newtons required to break uncooked bacon, fb = function of the bacon type, cm = cooking method, tc = cooking time, Ts = serving temperature, fc = function of the condiment/filling effect and ta = time or duration of application of condiment/filling.

The Perfect Present Wrap

{(d+2h+w)2 2(w+h)2

I’m not even going to bother trying to typeset that.

Thanks to Dr Sara Santos at the University of Manchester, “we now know why we put everything in boxes”.

The Perfect Sitcom

formula not properly explained

As in the Telegraph. Repeated, presumably on Dave.

Staying Awake At Work

Bear in mind that KF stands for “knacker factors”, so this is Maths. This comes from “experts at fatigue management consultancy Awake”.

The Perfect Cheese Sandwich

“Geoff Nute and his team” of “sensory analysts at Bristol University” produced this equation, which says that without a tangy sauce, you need infinite cheese. This was in the optimistically named “science and tech” section.

The Perfect Penalty

As in the Telegraph.

The Perfect Breasts

the nipple should be 45% of the way down. Apparently.

“Patrick Mallucci spent many hours poring over photos of topless models in lads magazines and tabloid newspapers to formulate his theory.” Enough said.

The Perfect Teeth

no formula

This isn’t strictly a formula. It’s really a set of rules about what makes a nice smile, of use to cosmetic dentists. I’ve seen at least one of them discussed in the British Dental Journal, but that was to debunk it. Hard to say what the truth is. Better at least than “the perfect cheese sandwich”, but still…

How To Beat The Post-Holiday Blues

Professor David Holmes of Manchester Metropolitan University “carried out the research on behalf of Churchill Travel Insurance”, who will presumably use it as a basis for premiums on Post-Holiday Blues Insurance. As ever, all the variables are listed on wholly arbitrary 1-5 kind of scales. According to the Mail, b represents “whether gaps between holidays too long”. Yeah. Gaps too long. Also, verbs for losers.

Will You Get Seasonal Affective Disorder?

X a x ((24-b) x (c+d+e) + f x (g+h+i))

Here, we learn why you should always use the multiplication sign instead of the lower case ‘x’. Also why you should remember to include the equals sign. This was devised by “consultant psychiatrist Dr David Wheatley” and “commissioned by Kira St John’s Wort, makers of a herbal “happiness” supplement, as part of a study on depression”. It has to be said, the list of instructions is sufficiently varied and complex to give the whole thing an air of credibility. But still…

How Beer Goggles Work

no formula supplied

“Bausch & Lomb PureVision, one of the world’s biggest eyecare firms” got “Professor Nathan Efron, Professor of Clinical Optometry at the University of Manchester” to do this. I don’t know why it’s so often universities I’m at where this stuff happens; before I started at Leeds, Dr Clarke, who took our electronics lectures, was asked by some supermarket or other to work out an equation for how to flip a pancake, and I guess they were expecting him to wander off and make something up, but no, he built a huge red trebuchet-looking thing to flip a strange cardboard pancake. I was there for four years, and some of my friends worked on this for a brief period. Partway through my course he retired, an act which made him much easier to locate – his workload went from insane to average. To my knowledge, the only thing this project has ever achieved is to break countless platinum-iridium tips for the tunnelling microscope. I suppose that means that they at least have more credibility than the “oh, it’ll be b times a plus 4d over qpr” crowd, but still…

When Heyfever Is Worst

6.02pm on May 29; no formula supplied

Stay indoors at that time, is my advice. “Dr Adrian Morris, allergy specialist for Boots Health Club, … created the hayfever formula”.

The Perfect Horror Film

Who says modern films are too formulaic? This is science! Look! It has a fucking sine function in it:

The experts have taken blood and guts (Sin x) and subtracted it by the stereotypes (1), to make Sin x - 1, saying Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining turned into the total opposite of a protective father figure.

See? That’s Science! Don’t say it isn’t! “Mathematician Anna Sigler, … a former graduate from King’s College, London” did this research. A former graduate, no less. Presumably her degree was revoked when they saw what she was doing with it. The Shining won, by the way. “The research was carried out for Sky Movies, which will be showing The Shining and other scary movies this weekend.” Coincidence.

How To Wash Your Hair

formula not stated

“Kerys Mullen, technical manager at Dove, said: “A lot of people ask us about the best way to wash their hair so we decided to work out the ideal formula.””

The Perfect Boiled Egg

formula not stated

How to boil an egg, by several chefs. At the bottom, input from “Dr Charles Williams A physicist from Exeter University [sic]”, who “has worked out a formula for the perfect boiled egg based on the ‘heat-diffusion equation for spherical objects’”. Fair enough, but I for one will trust the chefs on that one.

The Perfect Day To Change Your Life

max. May 18

This is the handiwork of Cliff Arnall, the same Cardiff University muppet responsible for the best/worst day formula the Mail and the Telegraph obligingly publish twice every year. If anything this is worse than that one: “Under the formula M stands for motivation and O for opportunity while Bh is bank holiday proximity. The H in the second half equals increasing hours of daylight, while R equals reflection time and S, simply success.” Yes. And..? Surely the aim is to maximise S? In which case, shouldn’t it be on the other side of the equals?

The Perfect Size of Pizza

This is one of the more reasonable ones, describing what size to make a pizza if you have certain amounts of dough and topping.

The Secret of True Happiness, no less

Thomson travel got “psychologist” Carol Rothwell and “sports scientist and ‘life coach’” Pete Cohen to “insist their equation is a useful guide to our levels of satisfaction with life”. Because just asking “are you happy” doesn’t work. Not enough maths, see.