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When numbers aren’t neutral: the hidden politics of budget calculators

The BBC News Budget 2017 calculator

The day after last week’s budget, I logged onto the BBC News website and clicked on their budget calculator to find out if I was a winner or a loser. The questions are pretty simple: first off, it asks how much you drink, smoke and drive, and then it asks how much you earn, plus a few bits and bobs to cover technicalities. Then, it spits out an answer: did Phil leave you feeling flush, was it more of a hammering at the hands of Hammond? I came away £8 a month better off…and significantly angrier than I expected.

#thatlogicproblem round-up

C: $K_A m; \\ K_B d.$

A: $\neg K_A d; \\ m \vDash \neg K_B m.$

B: $d \not\vDash K_B m; \\ (K_A(\neg K_B m)) \vDash K_B (m,d).$

A: $m \wedge K_B(m,d) \vDash K_A (m,d).$

Albert, Bernard and Cheryl have had a busy week. They’re the stars of #thatlogicproblem, a question from a Singapore maths test that was posted to Facebook by a TV presenter and quickly sent the internet deduction-crazy.

First of all: no, it’s not meant to be answered by an average Singaporean student. It’s a hard question from a schools Olympiad test.

All Squared, Number 10: Maths journalism

Evelyn Lamb is a professional mathematician who has taken up journalism on the side. She received the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship last year, and spent the summer writing for the magazine Scientific American. We talked to her about maths journalism, the challenges involved in making advances accessible to a wider audience, and the differences between blogging and print journalism.


Not mentioned recently on The Aperiodical

Summer is a busy time for this site’s hard-working triumvirate, so we haven’t been keeping on top of the news as much as we’d like. There’s been some quite interesting news, so here’s a quick round-up of the most important bits:

Here’s How Little I See Your Point

You may have seen an article linked to last week, written by Jordan Weissmann at The Atlantic. The article was titled ‘Here’s How Little Math Americans Actually Use At Work‘, although mysteriously this journalist makes use of some mathematical analysis of survey data, and not only that, the data appears to show that 94% of Americans claim to use mathematics as part of their daily job.

The article discusses people’s misconceptions about the future utility of what they were learning, as well as the divide between using ‘any math’ and ‘advanced math’, which includes calculus, algebra and statistics. The number of Americans who admitted to using this type of maths appears to drop off once you get to anything more complicated than fractions, and also presented is an analysis of this divide by job type.

A very well-written and thoughtful response to this has already been posted at mathematics professor Bret Benesh’s blog, which gives four reasons why the article annoyed him (and probably several other people too).

‘Maths whizz’ ‘predicts’ Grand National ‘winner’

Cambridge News is reporting that “maths whizz” and Cambridge maths masters graduate1 William Hartston has devised a system for predicting the winner at the Grand National on Saturday. Apparently he “looked at the number of letters in a horse’s name and the name’s first letter, the number of words the name contains and the horse’s age”. His system scores horses on a scale of up to 16 points; horses with one-word names beginning with the letters S, R, M or C and consisting of eight or 10 letters score well. The system apparently also takes age into account, which seems reasonable, but not the many other factors you might expect.

Hartston is quoted saying that Seabass is favourite to win as “the only horse with consistently high scores across all four criteria as it begins with S, is a one-word name, aged 10 years and has seven letters which is only slightly short of the preferred eight”. In fact, two horses scored 13 points, but Seabass has been chosen over Tatenen due to the mysterious claim “the latter’s scoring pattern was not as consistent as that of the former”. I’m unsure if this means that Tatenen’s name has changed.

And the work was “commissioned” by William Hill.

So far, so nonsense formula based on spurious correlations, but is that all there is to it? I always find it hard to believe that these stories are written or published, but there is something about Hartston as a source that seems especially strange.

  1. I particularly like how Click Liverpool has: “A “Master of Maths” has developed a formula…” as though “Master of Maths” is a made up thing. []