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...

## Maths compulsory until age 18

posted by Kevin Houston

The House of Lords just published a report recommending that students in the UK study mathematics until the age of 18. This recommendation cropped up last year in the Vorderman review. The Lords report can be found online in html and in pdf format. It’s a fairly long report but my response is as simple as my response to the Vorderman review: Where are the teachers going to come from? We don’t have enough teachers at the moment to provide the best-quality maths education. Giving the current ones more to do would lead to catastrophe. The Lords’ report even states The Department of Education, recognising the role of teaching in increasing the progression of students to A level STEM subjects,… has introduced a number of initiatives to increase the number of specialist teachers (such as, golden handshakes and bursaries), but, by their own admission, “the targets set by the previous Government for numbers of specialists teaching physics and maths will not be met”. Is the best that the DoE can come up with is golden handshakes and bursaries? It is unsurprising that the targets won’t be met. There will be no single solution to the problem of mathematics education in the UK, it will require many areas to be tackled but the solution must surely include higher pay for maths and science teachers. The simple reality is that my students can finish their degrees and get a job that pays them an average starting salary of (according to HESA) 23,160 pounds (according to AGR figures 26,500 pounds) with rapid increases, or spend a year on a bursary of less than 20,000, and join a profession where after a number of years they reach top of scale at 31,552 pounds? And yes I know I should take into account holidays, etc, but even with shorter holidays the working conditions are better in many professions. Looking at the figures, which do you think is the better...

## What’s the point of a university?...

posted by Kevin Houston

I’m currently on a train heading to London and so am taking the time to do emails and tasks like that. I didn’t get a chance to post last week as I’ve been very busy with other stuff like writing and assessing exams. This week is not much better – a meeting with a publisher in London (not to do with my books though) and a talk at the NAMA conference on Friday. Anyhow, I saw an article over the weekend on universities, not directly relevant to mathematics but obviously the health of mathematics depends on universities – after all, very few people will employ pure mathematicians to do pure mathematics. The article is rather lacking in good examples (such as why we need to fund mathematics via universities!) and as it is an excerpt from a book maybe that is an unfair criticism – the book may have the examples. The article can be found...

## Boycott of Elsevier

posted by Kevin Houston

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that the current system of publishing research is flawed. The government, i.e. taxpayers, pays us to do research, we send the resulting papers to journal publishers, we referee the papers and edit the journals for free and then the publishers sell the research back to us for a high price. The result is that the taxpayers pay twice, we work for free and the commercial publishers get rich. My answer to this was to start charging for my refereeing services. A small change but so far no-one has asked me to referee for something from a commercial publisher so it is really no change! However, a bigger and more effective method of change is coming – an academic boycott against Elsevier, considered by many to be a serious offender in this problem, has been started by Tim Gowers. Read the story over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, home to Prof...

## More on academic journals...

posted by Kevin Houston

Why can’t I remember to hit the publish button? This should have appeared yesterday! An interesting piece in the Times Higher: Peers, review your actions by Michael Taylor with plenty of good comments after the article. (Has that last phrase ever been used about comments on the internet?) For me the most interesting bit is the suggestion that researchers should ask for payment for their services – currently we referee and edit pretty much for free. I have seen before that we should charge fees – either by Halmos or Steven Krantz, but I can’t remember where. I think I’ll adopt the idea. If anyone asks me to review for an academic journal that is not open access or for a learned society such as the London Mathematical Society, then I’ll ask for payment. Does anyone know of a reasonable rate? Not that it matters, even if I set my fee at one pound per hour, then I think the journal editor will look elsewhere for a referee. I’ll start at 100 pounds for a standard paper and 140 for a long paper. Too much or am I undervaluing my time/talents? I’ll let you know if I get any...

## Bletchley Park needs your money...

posted by Kevin Houston

Mathematicians are very proud of the fact that a group of mathematicians, including Alan Turing, were responsible for breaking Nazi secret codes during World War 2. It has been claimed that their work shortened the war by at least two years. The code breakers worked in a country house, Bletchley Park, and the huts that they used have been decaying for years. When I visited the house in the late 90s the huts were looking rather shabby; what must they look like now? Well, the Heritage Lottery Fund has allocated 4.6 million pounds for the regeneration of Bletchley Park to restore the huts and create a visitor centre and exhibition. Good news to cheer! However… There is a catch. Bletchley Park has to raise 1.7 million to secure this money. To read more and to donate go to...