Blog : Posts tagged with 'maths'

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Density

In which we double-check Heather Mills’s numbers


I’m not one to care about celebrities, and so I don’t write celebrity stories on here. So think of this, instead, as a maths story.

Heather Mills-McCartney. You know who I mean: the famous amputee who will soon be rich enough that she won’t ever have to work again, thanks to her upcoming divorce. You’ve also probably heard about her going mad on telly a few days ago. In which she said, specifically, that she’s been hounded by the tabloids for 18 months, and had 4,400 abusive articles published about her.

Let’s just assume for a minute that she’s implying all of those articles appeared in that 18-month period. That’s about 550 days.* Or, in other words, 8 newspaper articles per day. In Britain there are 5 papers that are definitely tabloids, plus another couple that are, well, rather mad and right-wing. If she was only referring to British papers, then she’s claiming that every “tabloid” newspaper** had an article about her every single day, and that all of those articles were abusive. Now that really would be obsessive.

I’m not exactly surprised that her PR agent resigned very quickly. He was probably sitting, with his head in his hands, moaning softly to himself. “Heather! Heather! Don’t you realise how much work I did, to get all that lot published!”

* I’m assuming she didn’t mean 18 months to the day

** It’s a difficult term now there are a couple of serious newspapers that are tabloid-sized. I’m being charitable to The Times here, you understand

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Lecturing

In which we discover a hidden talent


I was still thinking idly about teaching H how to drive, the other day, when Colleague K came down to Room 3B (The IT Office) and said: “FP, do you know algebra? Wee Dave said you would.”

“Why?”

“Well, it’s just that my daughter’s got her GCSEs coming up, and she’s stuck on algebra, and I don’t know how to do it so I can’t help her.”

So, I took half an hour out to scribble down some basics about solving linear and simple quadratic equations, the sort of thing I assume everyone knows anyway. Ten pages later I had some rough notes on algebra done, making it as simple as I could, trying to explain why it all works instead of just giving the textbook answer. And she seemed to like it.

“Wow, FP, this is really good! Even I can understand it! Did you really just do all this off the top of your head?”

“Erm, yes, it’s only what I remember from when I was at school myself.”

“You should go into teaching or something!”

Which I’m not going to do. You have to work with children, annoying children who don’t want to work with you and don’t want to listen to what you have to tell them. But it set me thinking: why don’t I put notes on that sort of thing up on here? How to solve GCSE maths problems, or how to drive a car, or program a computer; that sort of thing. I could call it The FP Lectures, or something like that. And they’d have all the obvious stuff that noone ever tells you, because, to people who know it already it’s as obvious as breathing, too obvious to be worth teaching.

The only problem, of course, is finding the energy to actually do it.

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Greetings from sunny Tipton

In which we think about science and scientists


Lounging around on a sunny Sunday morning, I was planning, plotting, and thinking of things to write here. Planning on writing about the cake K was promising to bake, or W’s upcoming birthday, or yesterday’s trip to Oxford with C and P and various other people. And I started thinking: why do I refer to people by letter like that?

I quickly realised where I might have got it from: the scientist and writer Jeremy Bernstein. I have, somewhere on my shelves, a copy of his book Experiencing Science, a compilation of articles he wrote for the New Yorker. It is mostly a series of pocket biographies of prominent scientists, from Kepler through to Oppenheimer via Lysenko, Franklin, and others; but at the end of the book is a slightly strange, partly fictional essay on the work of Turing and Gödel. In which all the main characters – the fictional ones, at any rate – are referred to by their initial letters. K, W, and so on.

I can’t say I fully understand Gödel’s theorems. My maths isn’t that good. I do love its implications, though. It underwrites and undermines the whole of computer theory; and, as someone who works in IT, I know from experience that computer theory hardly ever matters in real life. Someone once asked me, politely, to shut up, on a train, because I was trying to explain Gödel’s theory rather loudly to Δ. I hadn’t realised we were in the Quiet Coach. I try to reread Bernstein’s book every year or two, and not just for the Gödel chapter; clearly, though, it’s been a bigger influence on my own writing than I’d realised before.

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