Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Is Nick Clegg a Liberal Democrat?

April 28, 2015

All my life I have found that Liberal Democrat policies (and before that, Liberal-SDP Alliance policies, and before that, Liberal policies) have been, if not a perfect match to my own views, then at least the closest to them. In particular, I am broadly centrist, tilting somewhat to the left, strongly in favour of voting reform, strongly in favour of remaining part of the European Union, and very keen to take much more radical action to combat climate change. However, Nick Clegg is doing his best to persuade me that to vote Liberal Democrat is no longer a good way of promoting these values. Here is what he has said about building coalitions after the election:

As we have always said, the party with the most votes and the most seats in this election has the first right to seek to form a Government. The British people would rightly question the legitimacy of a coalition that didn’t allow the party with the largest number of seats and votes the opportunity to attempt to form a Government first.

I’m proud that the Liberal Democrats have proved we can form a strong and stable coalition government, able to bring prosperity to Britain.

Just like we would not put UKIP in charge of Europe, we are not going to put the SNP in charge of Britain – a country they want to rip apart.

The current projections at Five Thirty-Eight put the Conservatives on 281 seats, Labour on 268, the Scottish Nationalists on 49 and the Liberal Democrats on 26. If these are correct, then Clegg is saying that he will try first to form a Government with the Conservatives. I claim that this is inconsistent with all four of the fundamental Liberal values I mentioned.
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USS changes — don’t be fooled

March 12, 2015

This post is meant for anybody who will be affected by proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, the body to which I and many other UK academics have paid our pension contributions and that now proposes to change the rules to deal with the fact that it has a large deficit as a result of the financial crisis. (Or rather, it says it has a large deficit, but there are arguments that the amount by which it is in deficit or surplus is highly volatile, so major changes are not necessarily justified.)

Of course, any change will have to be in the direction of making the deal less generous for those with pensions. Indeed, changes have already been made. Until a few years ago, the amount you got at the end was based on your final salary. More precisely, you got one 80th of your final salary per year after retirement for each year that you contributed to the scheme, up to a maximum of 40 years of contributions (and thus a maximum of half your final salary when you retire). But a few years ago they closed this final-salary scheme to new entrants, because (they said) it had become too expensive. This was partly because now a much larger proportion of academics end up as professors, so their final salaries are higher, and also of course because people live for longer.
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ECM2016 — your chance to influence the programme

June 29, 2014

UPDATE: I HAVE NOW GONE BACK TO MODERATING COMMENTS ONLY IF THEY ARE FROM PEOPLE WHO HAVE NOT HAD A COMMENT ACCEPTED IN THE PAST. SO IF YOU HAVE A SUGGESTION TO MAKE FOR AN ECM2016 SPEAKER, PLEASE EMAIL A MEMBER OF THE COMMITTEE DIRECTLY RATHER THAN COMMENTING HERE.

Just before I start this post, let me say that I do still intend to write a couple of follow-up posts to my previous one about journal prices. But I’ve been busy with a number of other things, so it may still take a little while.

This post is about the next European Congress of Mathematics, which takes place in Berlin in just over two years’ time. I have agreed to chair the scientific committee, which is responsible for choosing approximately 10 plenary speakers and approximately 30 invited lecturers, the latter to speak in four or five parallel sessions.

The ECM is less secretive than the ICM when it comes to drawing up its scientific programme. In particular, the names of the committee members were made public some time ago, and you can read them here.

I am all in favour of as much openness as possible, so I am very pleased that this is the way that the European Mathematical Society operates. But what is the maximum reasonable level of openness in this case? Clearly, public discussion of the merits of different candidates is completely out of order, but I think anything else goes. In particular, and this is the main point of the post, I would very much welcome suggestions for potential speakers. If you know of a mathematician who is European (and for these purposes Europe includes certain not obviously European countries such as Russia and Israel), has done exciting work (ideally recently), and will not already be speaking about that work at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul, then we would like to hear about it. Our main aim is that the congress should be rewarding for its participants, so we will take some account of people’s ability to give a good talk. This applies in particular to plenary speakers.
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Ted Odell

February 10, 2013

tedodell

I was shocked and saddened to hear about a week ago that Ted Odell, a mathematician to whom I owe a lot, died suddenly on January 9th of a heart attack while he was travelling to this year’s joint AMS/MAA meeting in San Diego. He was 65, but seemed a lot younger.

Ted was a world leader in Banach space theory, and in particular in the infinite-dimensional theory. The wry and slightly enigmatic smile you see in the photo was extremely characteristic: if I imagine Ted, I automatically imagine him with exactly that smile. Less clear from the photo, though perhaps it can be guessed from the camera angle, is that he was extremely tall: he belonged to a handful of mathematicians I know who make me feel short (Tom Sanders and Alex Scott being two others).

I first met Ted when I went to my first ever conference, in Strobl am Wolfgangsee in Austria in 1989. I can’t remember how it came about, but I ended up chatting to him, and he started explaining to me in a wonderfully clear way — the kind of explanation you just can’t get from a textbook — how Tsirelson’s space worked. I read in an obituary by András Zsak (which starts on page 30 of this issue of the LMS newsletter) that Ted had a reputation for being kind and encouraging to young mathematicians. He certainly was to me at this conference, taking the time to give this explanation to a graduate student about whom he knew nothing. Most of the next section describes an argument that he sketched out for me on one of those yellow pads of paper that seem to be standard in US maths departments. (I think I’ve still got the yellow sheets that he let me keep, but I’ve no idea where they are.)
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Why I’ve also joined the good guys

January 16, 2013

For some months now I have known of a very promising initiative that until recently I have been asked not to publicize too widely, because the people in charge of it did not have a good estimate for when it would actually come to fruition. But now those who know about it have been given the green light. The short version of what I want to say in this post is that a platform is to be created that will make it very easy to set up arXiv overlay journals.

What is an arXiv overlay journal? It is just like an electronic journal, except that instead of a website with lots of carefully formatted articles, all you get is a list of links to preprints on the arXiv. The idea is that the parts of the publication process that academics do voluntarily — editing and refereeing — are just as they are for traditional journals, and we do without the parts that cost money, such as copy-editing and typesetting.
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Why I’ve joined the bad guys

January 14, 2013

A few months ago I was alerted by a pingback to the existence of a blog post by Orr Shalit entitled Worse than Elsevier which included the assertion that Terence Tao and I had “joined the bad guys”. That is an allusion to the fact that we are editors for Forum of Mathematics, CUP’s new open-access journal. This post serves a dual purpose: to draw attention to the fact that Forum of Mathematics is now accepting submissions, and to counter some of the many objections that have been raised to it. In particular, I want to separate out the objections that are based on misconceptions from the objections that have real substance. Both kinds exist, and unfortunately they tend to get mixed up.

If you are not already familiar with this debate, the aspect of Forum of Mathematics that many people dislike is that it will be funded by means of article processing charges (which I shall abbreviate to APCs) rather than subscriptions. For the next three years, these charges will be waived, but after that there will be a charge of £500 per article. Let me now consider a number of objections that people have to APCs.
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What actually happened

November 9, 2012

The short version is that I’ve had the ablation (see previous post) and the surgeon who did it says that he has a good feeling about it. It’s taken till now to write this because, unlike most people who have ablations, I felt terrible for two days after it — with a headache (normal) and a fever (less normal but not unheard of). The fever was not very high, but high enough to be unpleasant, and meant that the only thing I could bear to do was go to bed, except that on the second night after the operation I had to spend part of the night sitting up on a sofa because my chest hurt too much when I was horizontal. (That was normal, and nothing to worry about.) So today is the first day that I am well enough to do anything as strenuous as writing a blog post.
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Mathematics meets real life

November 5, 2012

I’ve been in two minds about whether to post this. On the one hand, I try to keep personal matters out of this blog — though there has been the occasional exception — but on the other hand I have a topic that fits quite nicely with some of what I’ve been writing about recently, since it concerns a fairly important medical decision that I have had to make based on what felt like inadequate information. Since that is quite an interesting situation from a mathematical point of view, and even a philosophical point of view, and since most people have to make similar decisions at some point in their lives, I have opted to write the post.

The background is that over the last fifteen years or so I have had occasional bouts of atrial fibrillation, a condition that causes the heart to beat irregularly and not as strongly as it should. It is quite a common condition: I’ve just read that 2.3% of people over the age of 40 have it, and 5.9% of people over 65. Some people have no symptoms. I myself have mild symptoms — I can feel a slightly strange, and instantly recognisable, feeling in my chest, and I experience a few seconds of dizziness almost every time I stand up from a relaxed seated position — otherwise known as orthostatic hypotension, which I often used to get anyway (as do many people).
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Have you signed the open-access petition?

May 24, 2012

Update 4th June 2012. The petition has now passed 25,000 signatures. It would still be great to push on and reach a significantly higher number by the June 19th deadline.

As you may know, there is a system in the US for setting up online petitions. Any petition that reaches 25,000 signatures in 30 days will be considered by White House staff. Recently, a petition was set up asking the Obama administration to require publications resulting from research paid for by the US taxpayer to be freely available. If such a requirement were to be put in place, it would be a huge boost to the campaign to make all academic research easily accessible.

It became possible to sign the petition last Monday, since when there have been (as I write) 14,303 signatures, well over half the number required. Even if the rate of signing goes down, the target of 25,000 by June 19th will probably be reached. However, the organizers want not just to reach the target but to go well beyond it. It is hoped that that, and reported sympathy for the idea within the Obama administration, will give it a real chance of success. So if you can spare two or three minutes (you have to give your email address so that you can receive an email and confirm your identity, and also read a Captcha), then please do the world a service and add your signature. You do not have to be a US citizen to sign. And please pass the message on.

If you want to read a bit more about the petition and the background to it, then this Guardian article is a good start.

PS During the writing of this short post, there were six new signatures, so the tally now stands at 14,309.

A brief EPSRC update

April 13, 2012

Last summer I wrote a post about EPSRC’s plans to direct their funding towards certain areas and not others, and in particular on its effect on mathematicians, the most dramatic of which was to restrict their fellowships, which had previously been available throughout mathematics, to statistics and applied probability. The strongest argument I could see in favour of EPSRC’s position was that they were reviewing the various subareas of mathematics before deciding which should be grown, which maintained and which shrunk, and that so far only statistics and applied probability had been reviewed (with a decision that it should be grown).

It was of course a bizarre decision to remove fellowships entirely from areas that have not yet been reviewed — the obvious thing to do would surely have been to maintain the status quo in an area until the review was complete — but they promised that the reviews would be completed in November, so at least one could hope that this decision would represent no more than a brief hiatus.
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