Nate Silver on Panorama

I’m not a regular watcher of Panorama. It is a TV programme that has dumbed down considerably in my lifetime and I have probably only seen two programmes in the past decade. One was a couple of weeks ago on male suicide and the other was this Tuesday’s episode about Nate Silver attempting to predict the outcome of the forthcoming General Election here in the UK. Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise, on the uses of statistical methods for prediction, is one of my favourite books of recent years and is well worth reading if you haven’t read it. This programme is not so good. Silver was successful in predicting, against a backdrop of pundits who said it was too close to call, that Obama would win the last US Presidential election. Hence, it is natural to see if he can do the same in a UK General Election. My recollection is that he discusses this in his book and points how it is much much harder it is. Given recent developments in the UK it is now even harder… Anyhow, the programme itself is rather lightweight. The presenter Richard Bacon takes Silver round the country explaining the UK system, Silver goes back to US, and makes a prediction. There is no explanation of the statistical methods involved or how they relate to the election. How Silver arrives at the conclusion is overlooked. I’m not expecting an explanation of Bayesian inference or some such on prime time TV but the probabilities and ranges in his prediction have been removed and replaced with absolute numbers. An averagely intelligent viewer can grasp the concept of range surely. Hence, no major insight is gained. The prediction is not that different to what many would guess. My prediction was that, due to soft UKIP support, the Conservatives would be largest party but no majority, and that Labour and SNP would have a combined majority. And, apart from the numbers in the centre of the ranges, that’s all that the programme gives us. That’s a bit disappointing. The programme is available for 11 months on iPlayer but I guess that it is not available in all territories. Watch the programme here. Silver’s report, made in conjunction with three British academics, is available on Silver’s site The Five Thirty Eight. The three academics, Chris Hanretty, Benjamin Lauderdale, and Nick Vivyan, maintain the site electionforecast.co.uk. On the subject of election results, why do newspapers never give us the number of Don’t Knows when they publish a poll result before the election? I would say that group is important. Also, the number of Don’t Knows can be as large as 40% at the start of a campaign. It would be interesting to see how this changes during an election and to know why they are Don’t Knows. Just had to get that grumble off my chest… UPDATE: Well, just about everyone got it wrong. The Conservatives achieved a majority government! David Spiegelhalter has quite a bit to say about the polling problems on his Understanding Uncertainty...

Eduardo Sáenz de Cabezón – Math is Forever Apr16

Eduardo Sáenz de Cabezón – Math is Forever...

It has been a while since I posted a TED talk. There haven’t been many good ones in recent years. I enjoyed the one below (though I think he could have made clear that men respond the same way as women after asking the “What do you do?” question!). Further Reading The paper on the Honeycomb Conjecture by Thomas Hales starts off with a very good introduction before getting down to the higher level mathematics. Pappus of Alexandria Freeform Honeycomb Structures Not directly related but is an interesting paper from a conference I was at last...

Popular Lectures of the London Mathematical Society...

The line up for this year’s London Mathematical Society Popular Lectures has finally been announced. As this year marks the 150th year of the LMS there are four lecturers instead of the usual two. We have Professor Martin Hairer, FRS – University of Warwick (and recipient of a Fields Medal last year) Professor Ben Green, FRS – University of Oxford Dr Ruth King – University of St Andrews Dr Hannah Fry – University College London The lectures will be at different times and different places, see the Popular Lectures webpage. Last year’s lectures are available...

80s rubric

The last post was a monster post. This one is a bit shorter as it exam time at my university so I’m a bit busy. Students these days have it easy with regards to exams. They are given far too much information about how to get good marks. When I was a lad we had to guess what an examiner wanted. Just look at the rubric of this 1980s exam (click to enlarge): I just love “Full marks may be obtained for complete answers to about FIVE questions”! And this is not an isolated case, I have a stack of exam papers like...

The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Chord

On the 16th April 1964 the Beatles, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Ringo Starr, were on the cusp between stardom and mega-stardom. Groundbreaking albums, hit films, cartoons, royal honours, Sgt. Pepper, Indian mysticism, and an acrimonious break up all lay in their future as did the murder of Lennon and attempted murder of Harrison by separate mentally disturbed fans. That was all to come. Their task that night was to record an impressive opening track for their forthcoming debut film and the album to accompany it. Their producer, George Martin, wanted something spectacular: ‘We were looking for something big to open it with, an introduction. It needed a strong chord, a dramatic thing’ (p487 of Dominic Pedler, The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles, Omnibus Press, 2003). Those present in the Abbey Road studio to record Lennon’s song A Hard Day’s Night could not have imagined that 50 years later the events would still be analyzed and dissected. Particularly since the focus of the analysis is almost not a piece of music, it’s a short sound, less than 3 seconds long, a crashing, ringing, chiming sound that has caused arguments and discussions between Beatles’ fans and musicologists ever since it was recorded. The noise is impossible to describe accurately in words – the famous quote ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ comes to mind. The sound can be heard here: http://www.kevinhouston.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/original-chord3.wav The central question is simple: What is it? That is, what notes are played and who is playing them? Many versions have been suggested. In his massive Beatles book, The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles, Dominic Pedler collects twenty one educated guesses from various sources and devotes over 40 pages to discussion, including his own theory. It is not difficult to produce a chord that is close – strumming a guitar without fretting produces a similar sound. It’s close. But close is not exact, right? So, what is it really? In 2004 a mathematician claimed to have discovered this musical holy grail by applying mathematics. Once and for all, the riddle was solved because, after all, mathematics is not wrong and you can’t beat the scientists with their fancy abstract toys. Except there was a problem. He got it horribly wrong. Here, for the honour of all mathematicians, I would like to put the record straight — or at least straighter. The mathematical tale of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Chord is a tale of 18th century mathematicians, the study of heat, Karaoke tricks and a measure of luck. The quest begins I am a mathematics lecturer who enjoys promoting mathematics to school children and the general public. My introduction to the mystery of the chord came not from a love of the Beatles music but a desire to show off in front of my parents. My mathematics promotion involves giving talks all over the country but as I live in the north of England and my parents live in a secluded part of the north east of Scotland, they would under normal circumstances be unable to see their second son on a stage explaining mathematics. Back in 2011 I heard that the British Science Festival would be held the following year in Aberdeen which is close to where my parents live. The festival is held in a different city in the UK each year and aims to engage the general public in science. Hundreds of events take place over a week in September with debates, demonstrations and hands-on exhibitions at the local university as well as theatres and even, like maths busking, in the street. (Maths busking is as it sounds. Mathematicians go out in the street and do mathematics to entertain passers-by. I’ve tried it and it is hard. See my report here.) All I had to do was offer to give a talk, get accepted and I would get my chance to impress...