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Life, Logic and so on

While in Bristol I took the opportunity to visit the Watershed Centre and listen to a talk by Tim Harford. I know Tim as the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s More or Less but he is a writer and columist. In his latest book, the Logic of Life, he talks about the hidden economic logic in everyday life.

Watershed Centre
One of the interesting titbits I took away from this was an experiment in which volunteers were asked to fill in a survey (arbitrarily) and then offered a reward; the choice of a chocolate bar or a piece of fruit. One group were offered the choice to take away now, while another were told their reward would be brought to them in a week’s time. The group who were offered a reward now tended to choose the chocolate bar; while the group who were told they would receive their reward in a week tended to go for the fruit. After a week, when the researchers arrived to give them their reward they were given the option to change their choice, and a significant number changed to opt for the chocolate bar.

The conclusion, then, is that were are very good at deciding to make the correct choice in a week but tend to make bad decisions in the hear and now. Tim believes this explains some behaviour in dieting, quiting smoking, etc. As a chap who had packed an apple in his bag that morning but had subsequently bought a chocolate brownie, this has certainly stuck with me.

This reminded me of my own way of taking decisions. I have for a few years now always tried to take decisions as if I were not the one who has to follow through the consequences. I will think “is this the right thing to do?” or “shall I ask my assistant to do this?” If the answer is yes, as I don’t have an assistant I will have to do it myself. I find I tend to take better decisions when I abstract away the actual doing of the task. This came about when I realised people tend to give better advice than they themselves employ, and is of course a laziness-avoidance measure as well.

Rainy but useful time at Bristol

Department of Mathematics
Bristol is in the interesting position of being a university with both a Department of Mathematics (above) and a Department of Engineering Mathematics (below). I met with staff in the Mathematics department and enjoyed a tea break in the Engineering Mathematics department. (Incidentally, I drank from a “BAMC 2007” mug and I am off to BAMC 2008 next week in Manchester).

As at Bath the day before, there were less people around due to the Easter break but I still managed to meet some people with interesting views. There was a view expressed that students may respond well to graduates returning to their university to give talks on their careers, which combines well with views expressed yesterday by Sue Briault at Bath that students really want to hear from those who are really doing the job. I will have to explore the opportunities the network of IMA members has in this area.

Queens Building

Holidaying in Bath

It is the Easter holidays and I spent the week in Bath and visited Bath and Bristol Universities. Because it was the holidays there were fewer people around than there would be in term time but I still had several useful meetings.

University of Bath

At Bath, I had a meeting with several IMA members and discussed views on the IMA and its website. I also had interesting chats with Dr Adrian Bowyer about his work in mechanical engineering and on the RepRap self-replicating machine (photographed below) and Dr Paul Shepherd about his research in modelling architecture.

I also was able to meet with Sue Briault of the Bath Careers Advisory Service, who will be giving talks in the new term to undergraduate mathematicians on careers. Sue previously worked at the University of Nottingham and wrote for the Centre for Career Development Career Matters website, which looks like an interesting resource and contains documents such as this PDF on options with Mathematical Sciences degrees.

Interesting Reading in the careers library

At the Reading Careers Library last week I was given a tour. This was quite illuminating. There is a problem with mathematics in this context, as information on potential careers is grouped by job sector. If a student of, say, Law rolls up to the careers library their is a clear section with information on their career prospects in that named sector. Since mathematics students graduate to a wide range of sectors this produces a barrier to access of careers information. A student needs to know they are interested in a career in say, Finance, so they can look up specific information on careers in that sector.

One interesting piece of information is the factsheet given to students when they arrive at the careers library. Students are given a factsheet printed from the website, a well respected authority on university careers advice. This factsheet can be downloaded from the Prospects website: “Options with mathematics.” I would invite comment on this, particularly on the list of jobs under “Jobs directly related to your degree.”


Carrington Building, Reading Careers Advisory Service

Last week I visited Reading University. It is the Easter holiday so there are not many people around but I still had very useful meetings with Sandhya Tanna of the Reading Careers Advisory Service (building pictured to the right) and Simon Chandler-Wilde, Head of the Mathematics Department.

Maths at Reading includes a compulsory module on Maths communication skills which includes 5 credits on Career management skills. This inclusion of training in not only mathematical skills but also the skills to put across your skills and knowledge is interesting.

In the evening I attended an IMA North Hampshire, Surrey and Berkshire Branch meeting, which was an interesting and lively talk by Dr Philip Bond on quantum cryptography.

Reading Department of Mathematics

Life on the train

St. Pancras Railway Station

I seem to spend half my life in St. Pancras Railway Station. Today I was passing through London on my way to Reading for a visit there tomorrow.

On the train from Nottingham I had a cheap advanced ticket. These are tickets where you pay a low price because you guarantee to be on a particular train. When you get on the train there are several announcements that if you have this type of ticket booked for a different train your ticket will not be valid – this, after all, is the point of this type of ticket – and you have to buy a full price ticket. These announcements are so explicit that I always get a pang of worry that I might have miscalculated and am unnecessarily relieved when my ticket is stamped.

Still, there are people around me on nearly every train I travel on with invalid tickets. I have seen a poor chap with not enough English to understand what is happening be kicked off at Beeston to plead his case at the ticket office; I have seen a girl cry when made to buy a new, full price ticket.

Another similar situation is Loughborough, where there is a short platform. You have to be in the correct carriages to get off. There are so many announcements about this that it is really quite irritating, yet people still get angry when trying to get off at the wrong door.

Today, the repetitive announcement was that the train was the express, stopping only in Loughborough and Leicester. Still, a group in front of me were booked for Market Harborough, where the train does not stop.

I am always nervous on trains that I may have miscalculated my travel plans, and I know mistakes can be made. Nonetheless, I am amazed at how often these problems arise (and I only see the small parts of the small number of trains I am on), when considered relative to the frequency of the warning announcements.

This makes me think about my role promoting the IMA. I must tell people the IMA exists, what it does, that there is information on the IMA Student webpage. I worry that I will begin to sound repetitive and annoying, but my experiences on the train make me wonder: how many times do I need to repeat the message before people hear it?