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OpenLearn Live: 1st August 2016

Updated Monday 1st August 2016

The slow burn of an incendiary John Lennon line - and why chickens aren't linked to oil imports. Free learning from across the day.

OpenLearn Live connects the worlds of learning and research to the things that matter to you. This page will be updated across the day.

On Friday, we completed a week of notable buses

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Today's posts


The link between chicken and oil

The easiest trap to fall into when working with statistics is to assume that because two things appear to happen in tandem, they're happening because of each other. "Correlation is not causation" is the phrase statisticians use to ward off this evil.

In order to illustrate the pitfalls of seeing a pattern and assuming a link, Tyler Vigen has produced a series of graphs which plot similarly-shaped graphs on top of each other to imply a correlation that simply isn't there. For instance:

A chart showing chicken consumption and oil imports Creative commons image Icon Tylervigen.com | Spurious Correlations under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license

To put it another way, this is the mighty XKCD's take on the risk:

XKCD cartoon on correlation - Creative commons image Icon xkcd under Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0 license

But can we see spurious correlations being made in the wider world? Well, yes - our friends at More Or Less investigated one last week, inspired by press reports that living near a Waitrose would make your house more valuable. Could that possibly be true?

More on this episode of More or Less

Another of Tyler Viglen's spurious correlation: margarine and divorce


FutureLearn this week

This Monday, every Monday, brings forth a new set of courses over on our sister site FutureLearn. Here's some of the highlights launching today:

And, if you'd like to prepare yourself a little better before leaping in, there's a course from the OU on Getting started with online learning


Presidential reading list

Trump and Clinton and Johnson have been formally adopted by their respective parties to be on the ballot this November. Catch up with some of the latest academic insights into the race, including how Rousseau predicted Trump, why Johnson is worth remembering, and how Chinese women view Hillary Clinton

Read the post-convention reading list


50 years on: Bigger than Jesus

Fifty years ago this week - July 30th, 1966 - an event occured over which a certain portion of English people (many then unborn) have yet to move on from. England won the World Cup of football. But while England was celebrating, much else was happening around the world. This week, we're going to explore some of the events that were unfolding at the same time.

We're starting with something that didn't actually happen on the same day as there were some people on the pitch - the first bonfire of Beatles records.

The Beatles at Schiphol Airport Creative commons image Icon Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license

July 30th 1966 had been due to be the first public burning of Beatles records - although there's no record that the promised event actually happened. Certainly, there were events around America where copies of Love Me Do were put to the flames. But there's no record that the first fire - called for in Birmingham, Alabama - actually took place.

To understand what was happening, we have to spool back to 4th March 1966, when Maureen Cleave published an interview with John Lennon in the London Standard. Headlined 'How does a Beatle live', Lennon was relaxed - Cleave was a friend - and the conversation wandered onto the astonishing success the band were experiencing. John compared their rise with the decline of Western religion:

Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in him: not that his mind is closed, but it's closed round whatever he believes at the time. 'Christianity will go,' he said. 'It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first - rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.' He is reading extensively about religion.

Arguably, the disciples might feel they were more slighted by the comments that Jesus was.

That might have been that; the paper published; life moved on.

Except the band's press officer Tony Barrow wanted to help reshape The Beatles as something a bit deeper than pop-mop-tops in the mind of Americans, and thought that this wide-ranging, philosophical interview would help do that. He sold rights to an American magazine, Datebook. That magazine saw the news angle straight away, and art director Art Unger pulled the 'bigger than Jesus' line and splashed it on the cover. Prominent and shorn of context, the line caught attention.

It's amazing to think - from the context of a world where you can make an ill-considered tweet as you get on a plane and have your life in tatters by the time you land - that it was the best part of half a year between Lennon giving the interview and it all kicking off. But kick-off it did, and the prime mover in the kick-off was Doug Layton.

Layton was a presenter on WAQY-AM in Birmingham; on July 28th, on-air, he and station manager Tommy Charles announced they wouldn't be playing The Beatles again. Layton then went further, and called for a public fire of Beatles records on the Saturday. And although that first fire didn't happen, Layton would find that the off-the-cuff remark would follow him around for the rest of his career. Layton died last year, and - naturally - the time he took on Britain's biggest export featured in his obituaries. This from AL.com:

Mr. Layton's notoriety for his role in the ban-the-Beatles protest followed him throughout the rest of his career, his wife, Villeta Layton, said.

"He would rather not talk about it," Mrs. Layton said this week. "He would roll his eyes (when he was asked about it). It was something that was said at the time, and it just ballooned.

"When that anniversary comes up every year, they call him from the BBC to talk about it. One year, they were going to fly him to England to be interviewed, but he didn't do it."

As more radio stations - not just in America, but Spain and South Africa - joined the boycott of The Beatles, and small fires of vinyl took place around the US, the band's manager Brian Epstein started to fret. Had his band damaged their brand beyond repair?

A planned tour of America was nearly cancelled, but instead the first press conference of the tour - in Chicago, on August 11th - was used for Lennon to sort-of apologise, and sort-of restore some context:

“I was pointing out…that we meant more to kids than Jesus did, or religion, at that time. I wasn't knocking it or putting it down, I was just saying it as a fact... it is true, especially more for England than here. I'm not saying that we're better, or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is.”

"If you want me to apologise, if that will make you happy, then OK, I'm sorry."

It was enough to take the heat out of the situation. The tour went ahead - although it was to be their last live adventures in the US.

And, eventually, in 2008, even The Church (or at least The Vatican) moved on:

Saturday's edition of the Vatican's official newspaper absolves John Lennon of his notorious remark, saying that "after so many years it sounds merely like the boasting of an English working-class lad struggling to cope with unexpected success".

Perhaps, though, Lennon had been lucky. The 'bigger than Jesus' controversey had drawn attention away from something else he'd said in the same interview. As Slate observes, the series of inteviews had been littered with unpleasant observations:

But a return to the original series turns up several quotes that now read as seriously pungent. “Show business belongs to the Jews,” Cleaves quotes “The Beatles” collectively as saying, in a version of her reporting that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in July of 1966. “It’s part of the Jewish religion.” (In a press conference in Los Angeles in August, Lennon tersely admittedthat the quote came from him: “You can read into it what you like, you know. It's just a little old statement. It's not very serious.” The crowd of journalists didn’t ask him to follow up.)

Lennon also tells Cleave that he is considering sending his son Julian to a French lycée in London, but muses “I feel sorry for him, though. I couldn’t stand ugly people even when I was five. Lots of the ugly ones are foreign, aren’t they?” Ringo Starr, meanwhile, refers to the band as being so close they’re like “Siamese quads eating out of the same bowl.” He jokes of his wife, Maureen, that “I own her, of course.” She was 16 when they met—he was six years older—and “her parents signed her over to me when I married her.” 

Seen like that, The Beatles might have got away lightly.

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