Why ‘up to’ means nothing at all

November 2, 2015

The sale looked impressive – posters in the window guaranteed savings of “up to” 80%. Wow. We were about to go into the store when my friend asked: “But what does that mean?” Read the rest of this entry »

Not going too far – just far enough

October 17, 2014

“Just how far would you like to go?” the enigmatic Frank asks in the sleeve notes to the Dylan album John Wesley Harding. “Not too far,” comes the reply. “Just far enough so we’s can say that we’ve been there.”

Reading maths at the higher levels is akin to poetry – dense, abstract, often impenetrable, albeit with its own rewards. But there are plenty of books out there that offer a digestible taste of the good stuff without talking down to the reader. The Dover series of maths and science books are a case in point, offering insights into a complex and sometimes daunting world but written in an engaging way – not taking you too far, but just far enough.

Sampling, probability and non-probability

January 20, 2014

Evaluating the significance of a survey used to be fairly straightforward – for any truly random sample, there is a well-defined margin of error which allows a critical reader to judge how valid any inferences are.

So for a survey of 1,000 respondents, the margin of error is around 3% at the 95% confidence level (this last figures indicates there is only a 5% probability that the findings were the result of chance). If a news story says Ed Miliband is leading David Cameron by 42% to 37% in the polls, we know this falls within the stated margin of error, since Ed Miliband’s true position may be 39% (42% – 3%) and David Cameron’s may be 40% (37% + 3%).

The difficulty from the pollster’s point of view is that creating a truly random sample is costly and time-consuming. So recently, non-probability sampling has enjoyed favour, particularly in the US and now increasingly in the UK.

Why the world has no place for ugly truths

November 29, 2013

If G. H. Hardy is much thought about these days (and beyond fellow mathematicians, he probably isn’t), it is as much for his dazzling aphorisms as his dizzying flights in the upper reaches of number theory.

“There is no permament place in the world,” he declared, “for ugly mathematics”. This has led to Hardy being characterised as an aesthete in the Wildean mould, compounded by C. P. Snow‘s dark references to his sexuality (in the foreward to Hardy’s autobiographical A Mathematician’s Apology, Snow alludes to “intense affections” for young men, “absorbing … exalted” but – to Snow’s no doubt immense relief – “non-physical”).

But the equivocation is doubly misplaced.

That’s magic! … not a lot

February 17, 2013

Numbers have always been associated with magic, from the Kabbalah to ‘unlucky’ numbers, such as 13 (down my street, the people next to house number 11 choose to live at 15A, much to the mailman’s bemusement).

The most recent version is exemplified in the online gaming shows, such as Jackpot247,  which tend to grace our airwaves in the unholy hours.

Watch the routlette shows (roulette having a negative chance of winning, so your optimal betting strategy here is to gather together all the money you ever, in your entire life, intend to gamble on routlette in a neat pile in front of you, and risk it all on one single, inglorious spin)