Archive for the ‘General’ Category

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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Abstract thoughts about online review systems

February 2, 2012

As many people have pointed out, to get to a new and better system for dealing with mathematical papers, a positive strategy of actually setting up a new system might work rather better than complaining about the current system. Or rather, since it seems unlikely that one can simply invent ex nihilo a system that’s satisfactory in all respects, one should set up systems (in the plural) and see which ones work and catch on.

I’ve already had a go at suggesting a system, back in this post and this post. Another system that has been advocated, which I also like the sound of, is free-floating “evaluation boards” that offer their stamps of approval to papers that are on the arXiv. (I associate this idea with Andrew Stacey, though I think that in this area there are several good ideas that have been had independently by several people.) But instead of discussing particular systems, which runs the risk that one ends up arguing about incidental details, I want to try to adopt a more “axiomatic” approach, and think about what it is that we want these new systems to do. Once we’re clear on that, we have a more straightforward problem to solve: how do we achieve most efficiently what we want to achieve?
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SOPA — my part in its downfall

January 17, 2012

If you haven’t heard, SOPA, which stands for Stop Online Piracy Act, is a US bill that was proposed in order to do what its name suggests. Although it has been defeated for now, its proponents have not given up, so many websites, notably including Wikipedia, are going on strike tomorrow (January 18th) in order to show just how potentially damaging the bill could be to the internet. I haven’t looked in much detail into what the adverse consequences of SOPA would be, but I’ve read enough, from people whose opinions I trust, to believe that I should join this strike. My technical competence is insufficient to follow the instructions that have been offered for doing this (and the same applies to any instructions that anyone reading this might feel moved to offer so I suggest not bothering). Therefore, I plan to mark this blog as private (and therefore inaccessible) for the day, an operation that I will undo on Thursday.

If you’d like more details about what’s wrong with the bill, then Google “SOPA” and you’ll find all you could possibly want.

Edit: I was about to change the blog to private when I noticed that WordPress has a Protest SOPA/PIPA setting. I’ve gone for that. It results in the ribbon you see in the top right-hand corner of this page, and a total blackout, with a page explaining why, from 8am to 8pm EST. So that will kick in properly at 1pm UK time.

Farewell to a pen-friend

December 18, 2011

A few days ago I learnt from the Guardian of the death of the novelist and critic Gilbert Adair. I was saddened by this, partly because I have hugely enjoyed his writing (though I’m glad to say that I haven’t read his entire oeuvre, so there are still treats in store) and partly because I knew him. The title of this post is a pun of a kind I hope he would have approved of: our interactions were mostly by email, but one can also take the “pen” to mean “almost” (as in “peninsula”), which is why I used a hyphen. We met a couple of times, and might have become proper friends if I had been less socially lazy. It turns out that he had a stroke a year ago, but I didn’t hear about it, so his death just over a week ago came as a surprise and leaves me regretting that I didn’t see more of him while I had the chance.

Since there’s nothing I can do about that, I thought that I’d try to use this blog as an outlet for the resulting feeling of loss, which is out of proportion to the amount that I actually had to do with him. Or perhaps it isn’t, since the very fact that I didn’t see him much is part of what now bothers me. It is also why I had no idea that my last contact with him might be my last, and why his death now seems a bit unreal.

A maths blog is not a completely inappropriate place to write about him, because I met him through mathematics and it was because of mathematics, which fascinated him, that that initial meeting led to a couple of further meetings. A secondary purpose of this post is to recommend his books, which are extremely clever in a way that many mathematicians would like. I’ll describe some of them as I go along.
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Results and explanation

August 26, 2011

I’ve had a healthy number of responses to my question from the previous post. In case you are reading this post without having read the previous one, I shall continue after the fold, because if you read on it will render you ineligible to participate in the little experiment I am conducting.
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Which is easier?

August 22, 2011

Below are the questions from two mathematics papers. Each paper is divided into a section A and a section B. If you are prepared to look through the questions (maybe even doing some of them if you are sufficiently conscientious) and give me your judgment about which section A is easier and which section B is easier, I would be very interested and grateful. I shall refer to the two A sections as section A1 and section A2, and similarly for the two B sections.

A few words about this exercise.

1. I am deliberately saying as little as possible about the questions or my motivation for this post. I will write more once I have enough answers.

2. The order in which I have presented the two A sections was decided by the toss of a coin. The order in which I have presented the two B sections was decided by the independent toss of a (different) coin.

3. When it comes to your vote, I am interested in your degree of certainty rather than in the difference of difficulty. In particular, if you are absolutely certain that one section is very slightly harder than another, then you should indicate that you are certain and not worry that the difference is slight (just as I am absolutely certain that \sqrt{2}>1.4142).

4. Please remember to take account not just of the difficulty of individual questions but also of the number of marks available (which are shown in square brackets).

5. Obviously the difficulty of a question depends on how familiar you are with the general type of question to which it belongs. This shouldn’t create problems because the subject matter in the two papers is very similar. However, if it helps, a good working assumption is that people taking the papers have seen similar questions before.

6. If by any chance you recognise any of the sections, then please do not take part in the votes.

7. I am interested in independent judgments, so for the time being I will hide the results of the polls. I have also disabled comments for the time being. When enough people have voted, I will make the results available and will allow comments.

8. Thank you very much in advance to all who take the trouble to participate.

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A message from our sponsors

July 26, 2011

The main national funding body for science and engineering in the UK is The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, or EPSRC. Recently there have been some important changes announced via their website. (Whether there was any other warning about these changes I do not know — I confess to having rather taken EPSRC for granted.) Rather than giving my opinion about the changes, which will be obvious, I thought I’d let EPSRC speak for itself: I think that what they are doing should be widely publicized, and in this post I shall restrict myself as much as I can to quoting from their website, with a few words of explanation here and there to make the context clear. If you have time, I recommend visiting and exploring the website itself, and seeing what you can deduce about EPSRC’s attitude to mathematics.

A quick disclaimer: though I imagine that my implied opinions are widely shared, I am writing this in a personal capacity and without the endorsement of anybody else.
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To cut or not to cut?

May 15, 2011

Suppose you owned a premiership football club that was losing money and not winning many matches. You would face the following dilemma: should you spend more money on players, in the hope of improving the team’s performances, and therefore revenue, or should you save money by selling players but risk being relegated, which, if it happened, would mean that your club would lose out on huge amounts of money from lucrative TV deals?

Because your club is losing money, the current situation is unsustainable, so you are more or less forced to go one way or the other: either you try to spend your way to success or you play it safe. If you try the first strategy and it fails, then you end up in a much worse position than before — you have spent a lot of money and are still losing money. If you try the second strategy, then you will lose your best players, so that even if the club becomes financially sound it will probably face an extended period of not doing very well on the pitch.
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Some post-referendum consolations

May 6, 2011

I started my first post on AV by saying that I had yearned for a better voting system all my life but that I expected to be disappointed. Now the expected disappointment has arrived, and although the count is not yet finished it is already clear that the referendum is a massive defeat for AV [update: by approximately 70% to 30%]. Moreover, the consensus is that the opportunity will not arise again for at least generation. By then I’ll be an old man, so even if we do eventually get a decent voting system I probably won’t live to see how it affects politics in this country.

It is not easy to say anything positive about this situation. But let me try all the same. (more…)

AV vs FPTP — the short(er) version

April 30, 2011

I am sufficiently out of touch (or perhaps simply part of the wrong generation) that when I saw that somebody on Twitter had described my previous post as “a prime candidate for tl;dr” I didn’t know what it meant. In case you didn’t either, it stands for “too long; didn’t read”. I realize that it was a bit long for a blog post: my defence is that (i) I thought that it would be mainly read by mathematicians, who are more patient than your average reader (if you want to know why, try reading a university-level mathematics textbook), (ii) I found that I had a lot to say and wanted to justify it carefully, and (iii) I tried to make it easy to skim-read by dividing it into sections and having slogans that summed up my points.

But the post has been read far more widely than I expected, which makes me think, with referendum day approaching rapidly, that I might be able to reach more people if I wrote a shorter version — I fully understand that not everyone has the time or inclination to read a 10,000-word essay. Of course, I have to compromise on the justifications, but they are there in the long version (which I would prefer you to read if you have the time and inclination). Another advantage of writing a second version is that it enables me to take account of some good points raised in the responses to the first. (If I don’t take account of yours, it doesn’t mean I didn’t think it was good.) One general criticism made by a couple of people was that I didn’t spend any time debunking bad arguments made by the YES2AV campaign (though that was before I wrote the supplementary post). I’ll try to put that right here, though it seems to me that the bad YES2AV arguments tend to be weak and unconvincing, whereas the worst of the NO2AV arguments are actually wrong.

A quick remark before I get going. I read an interesting article in the Guardian about the opinion polls, which are still suggesting an easy victory for NO2AV: they show a split of roughly 60 to 40 amongst people who say they are certain to vote. However, the article also said that the percentage who say they are certain to vote is much higher than most people believe will actually turn up to vote. This gives me a small straw-clutching hope. It seems to me that people who say they want to vote no to punish Nick Clegg can take that sort of view only if (i) they would have voted no anyway or (ii) they don’t actually care one way or the other about voting reform. It seems possible that people of the second kind will be less inclined to feel that it is important to vote. I don’t offer this as a completely convincing argument — perhaps there are lots of people who think that AV is a small improvement but in the end won’t make much difference, and perhaps they too will decide that it’s not the end of the world if they don’t vote. But leaving that aside, a low turnout is predicted, so your vote has more of a chance of making a difference than it might have. If you’re reading this, please, whatever your views, do go and vote. (That sounds admirably balanced, but it isn’t really: I think most people who read this post are sympathetic to AV, so if my plea makes any difference then it ought to favour the YES side.) One final thought about this is that even if NO wins as expected, the smaller the margin of victory, the more chance of getting the politicians to reconsider voting reform at some future date.
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