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Gerrymandering Gives Mathematics’s Moon a Day in the Sun

If you pay attention to United States politics you have probably noticed that mathematics is currently enjoying a rare moment of relevance. You probably also know this is not happening because all of a sudden politicians have decided that mathematics is clearly the coolest thing in the world, even though it clearly is, but instead because gerrymandering has become one of the major issues du jour.

Axes to Axes

In which the intrepid maths-crime-fighting duo of Gale and Beveridge find themselves thrust back to a time before people could do maths properly.


It had been a quiet night at the Aperiodical police station. Apart from a few cases of broken scheduling in Excel formulas – nothing a bit of TIME() in the cells wouldn’t put right – there was nothing.

At 11pm, the phone rang. I looked at Sergeant Gale. Sergeant Gale pointedly looked at the phone, raised an eyebrow, and returned to his sudoku.

“Maths Police, bad graphs department. Constable Beveridge speaking, how can I help?”

Seeking election-themed graph blunders

Since we’d like to write a funny post about it, if you’ve been sent any literature for the upcoming local elections in the UK (or indeed, from the past or from other elections around the world) which contains a graph or chart of questionable rigor, we want to know about it.

As an example, Colin Beveridge sent us this classic from his doormat:

colni_election_graph

 

We’ll be awarding bonus points for inaccurate pie charts, exaggerated/meaningless bar sizes, the complete absence of axis label or scale, the use of ‘Can’t win here!’ and any other sneaky/incompetent features. Email your submissions to root@aperiodical.com, and watch out for a roundup post if we collect a sizeable pile.

Not mentioned on The Aperiodical last week

The way the news section of this site works is, the three of us send in links throughout the week to stories we’ve seen. They go into a section of the site’s backend titled “anyone can edit”, which is code for “someone else please write this up.” It tends to fill up until one of us takes a day, typically a Friday, to run through it and write up as many news stories as they can manage before finger cramps or brain blockages kick in.

This ad hoc news coverage system tends to mean that we miss quite a few big stories, because they take time to research and present in a form we’d be happy with. There are also times when it’s quite hard to tell whether something that’s big in the mainstream press is actually worthwhile, or the result of a canny university PR department framing something uninteresting in a way that will grab editors’ attentions.

On top of all of this, we haven’t been particularly good neighbours so far: there’s a lot of good maths blogging going on around the world, and we’ve been a bit of a closed shop so far.

So what we thought we should do is write a post at the end of each week quickly mentioning the things we didn’t get round to covering, or decided not to cover, and throw in some links to good maths posts we’ve seen elsewhere. Here’s the first one of those.


US high school mathematics teacher Liz Ratliff is going to the South Pole with the IceCube neutrino observatory under a programme called PolarTREC (Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating). You can follow her adventures on her online journal, in the most recent post of which she describes the theoretical background behind the IceCube facility (“basically a giant telescope buried under the ice at the South Pole”). (This story via Samuel Hansen on Math/Maths 120.)

New Scientist published a piece ‘Mathematical proof reveals magic of Ramanujan’s genius‘, about Ken Ono’s (unpublished) work on modular forms.

And, of course, the big news this week, to which we felt we had little to contribute, was the work of Nate Silver in predicting the outcome of the US Election.Some was more triumphant, such as Mashable’s ‘Triumph of the Nerds: Nate Silver Wins in 50 States‘ or the xkcd comic ‘Math‘, and some were more in the mode of sober reflection, such as The Baseline Scenario’s ‘A Few Thoughts on Nate Silver‘, which offers “as Daniel Engber pointed out, the fact that Obama won (and that Silver called all fifty states correctly) doesn’t prove that Silver is a genius any more than Obama’s losing would have proven that he was a fraud”, with some discussion of how probabilistic forecasting should be treated.

Some drew wider conclusions about the state of mathematics and numeracy in the general public, like the Cocktail Party Physics blog’s ‘Why Math is Like the Honey Badger: Nate Silver Ascendant‘. How did he do it? There’s a good piece on More or Less still available via iPlayer Radio, and the GrrlScientist blog offers ‘How did Nate Silver predict the US election?‘ Felix Salmon wrote about Nate’s ability to cast his predictions in a compelling narrative in ‘When quants tell stories‘. But the definitive account of how his process works is given by the site Is Nate Silver a Witch?

Nate himself offers a roundup of ‘Which Polls Fared Best (and Worst) in the 2012 Presidential Race‘.