## Sunday, 28 January 2018

### London buses, and the use of the mean as an estimate

A couple of weeks ago, I got onto my morning bus, climbed the stairs, holding on as the bus lurched forward, and sat down, to hear for the first time the new announcement "Please hold on: the bus is about to move", introduced by TfL (Transport for London).  Over the next few days this announcement was widely ridiculed. It was broadcast after every stop, but often - in my experience almost always - AFTER the bus had started moving, and sometimes when it was slowing down for the next stop, making the announcement appear ridiculous.  Occasionally, at busy stops like the railway station, it was broadcast while large numbers of people were still waiting to board, presumably causing consternation to prospective passengers who took it seriously.  And on one occasion, while the bus was stationary, I heard "The bus is about to move" followed immediately by the announcement "The driver has been instructed to wait here for a few minutes", flatly contradicting the previous words.

What was happening? TfL explained that they were piloting the announcement for four weeks, to try to reduce the number of injuries sustained by passengers on moving buses - apparently of the order of 5000 each year.  The timing of the announcement was based on the average time buses spent at each stop - I suspect by "average" they meant the mean.

The intention is laudable.  But the problem with using a mean in situations like this is that it doesn't really tell you how long a particular bus will wait at a given stop.  My bus home probably spends longer stopped at the railway station than at all the other stops put together.  Just as most people earn less than the mean national salary, which is heavily influenced by the very small number of people earning millions each year, so I imagine most of the time a bus spends less time at a stop than the mean.  So a system based on the mean time spent at a stop will result in the announcement usually being played after the us has left the stop, leading to ridicule.

Now, TfL are pretty good at maths - their planning of the transport around London during the 2012 Olympics was a very successful example of operational research in action.  So did they really get this wrong?  After all, one would think that a few tests would have shown the problem.

Certainly one result of the announcements was  a great deal of publicity, which perhaps has made people more aware of the need for care when standing and moving on a bus. The announcements themselves may have a short-term effect, but in fact one very quickly ceases to notice them (or at least I have found that they very rarely impinged on my attention, after the first few instances on the first day).  But perhaps the press coverage, and people talking about the announcements, had more impact than the announcements themselves.

But if the announcements are to continue, how can TfL avoid the absurdity of an announcement that the bus is about to move being broadcast after it has moved?  The solution TfL have adopted (as well as apparently changing the timing) is simple.  The wording of the announcement is now "Please hold on while the bus is moving".  The timing no longer offers the possibility of absurdity.  The solution to this problem was not mathematical modelling, but thoughtful use of language.

## Sunday, 19 November 2017

### MathsJam

Here is my overdue post on last weekend's MathsJam gathering.  MathsJam is always a wonderfully exciting and enjoyable weekend, and this one was particularly good.  I can honestly say that I enjoyed every talk, and was entertained, surprised and educated in roughly equal measures.

I'm nervous about selecting highlights, because almost everything was a highlight, and my list inevitably leaves out many excellent talks. There is a list of all the talks on the MathsJam website but here are some I particularly remember (in the order in which they were presented):

• Simon's 3D-printed robot which solves Rubik's cube (time-lapse video shown here with Simon's permission);
• Matt on logical deduction games, which brought back memories of playing Eleusis when I was a student and introduced others I need to find out about;
• Noel-Ann on data and how to it can be represented (and misrepresented);
• Zoe's poem about e, which (understandably) seems to be on everybody's highlight list;
• Matthew's amazing recreation of a problem from Captain Scarlet about the bongs of Big Ben;
• Andrew's paradoxical balloon monkey, which although made from a single balloon, has an underlying graph which is not semi-Eulerian;
• Angela's poem;
• Rachel on spinning yarn;
• Alison on illogical units, and Dave on illogical scales;
• Will on non-binary cellular automata;
• Miles finding striking similarities between mountaineering and mathematics;
• Glen showing how many holes a constructed object (equivalent to a T-shirt) possessed (most of MathsJam seem to have got it wrong, going for four rather than three!);
• Paolo using a pack of cards to find two numbers from their sum and difference;

And of course the "extra-curricular" puzzles, games and magic, Tiago showing me how to tie a knot with one hand, and the spectacular mathematical cakes.

So once more a memorable MathsJam, with an excellent range of speakers and talks, friendly atmosphere and fascinating and surprising mathematics.  The organisers once again did an amazing job!

## Wednesday, 8 November 2017

### Looking forward to MathsJam

With only three days to go till the MathsJam Gathering - the best weekend of the year, I've been thinking of some of my favourite MathsJam discoveries. Sticking to pure mathematics, here are my memories of three gems.  I could have chosen many others, but perhaps because these happen to relate to my current teaching, and I showed two of them to my graph theory students immediately upon my return from the gathering, they are the first that come to mind.  Since I believe all MathsJam presentations are available online, further details should be readily available.

• Colin Wright's amazing talk on graph colouring, which started by asking us to complete a partially-completed 3-colouring of a small graph, and turned into a more-or-less complete proof, within a 5-minute talk, that there is no polynomial-time algorithm for 3-colouring a graph.
• Ross Atkins's talk about Braess's Paradox - a simple situation in which adding an extra road to a network, with no increase in traffic, results in longer average journey times.  I should have known about this counter-intuitive result so I'm very glad to have found out about it, and especially with the wonderful demonstration with a network of springs that showed a mechanical realisation of the paradox.
• David Bedford's "What's my polynomial?"  I love this because it is arguably what the late Raymond Smullyan called a "monkey trick".  David asked you to think of a polynomial p(x) with non-negative integer coefficients, and, for a single value of x of your choice, greater than any of the coefficients, tell him both x and p(x).  He would then tell you your polynomial.  Knowing that one needs n values to determine a polynomial of degree n, I was taken in by this!

I could have chosen many more examples: I'm certainly not ranking these presentations or any others. On another day I might have chosen a completely different set!  But I'm certainly looking forward to coming across more wonderful mathematics this weekend!

## Wednesday, 1 November 2017

### Black Mathematician Month

One of the best things to have happened for mathematics in the UK recently is the arrival of Chalkdust magazine - an exciting, witty magazine with a unique style.  (It's very different in feel from the equally admirable, and much missed, iSquared, which is happily preserved online.)

And the best thing that Chalkdust has done is the Black Mathematician Month which has just finished - a month of interviews, conversations and activities "promoting black mathematicians, and talking about building a more representative mathematical community".  The stories that were told were sometimes shocking, sometimes horrifying, often inspiring, and very important. I was lucky enough to be one of the large audience for the final event, an excellent talk about the Black Heroes of Mathematics by Nira Chamberlain (and I was particularly pleased that several undergraduates from the University of Greenwich were also there).   Nira told us about a number of great black mathematicians: despite his own negative experiences as a young black man wishing to become a mathematician, and the obstacles in his way, his presentation was overwhelmingly positive in tone and his passion communicated strongly with the audience.

I myself was a very privileged mathematics student.  I had an adequate grant and did not need to work while I was studying.  I had a supportive family.  Both my parents went to university (probably quite unusual for the time although I didn't realise that), as did my father's sister (I believe the first woman from her school to do so) and all my siblings.  I was supported not only by their academic expectations but by their understanding of university education.  I was well prepared by excellent schoolteachers.  Careers advisers encouraged me to study maths, not to forget that ambition and aim to be a boxer (as Nira was advised) or a singer (as Nira's son, alarmingly recently, was told).

I understood some of that privilege at the time.  But of course, I was also white and male.  It is only now, when I look at the achievement of people like Nira, and many of our students at Greenwich who have overcome enormous obstacles, that I am beginning to understand just how that contributed to my privilege.  My mathematics cohort as an undergraduate was almost all white (possibly even entirely white: I don't remember any exceptions) and largely male.  When I look at my classes (and colleagues) at Greenwich, I feel very glad to have the opportunity to work with such diverse people.

Chalkdust's reflections on Black Mathematician Month deserve wide circulation.  This feels like an important initiative, which hopefully will help all potential mathematicians, whatever their race or gender, have the opportunity to follow their dreams, inspired by people like Nira and the other mathematicians featured.

## Saturday, 14 October 2017

### Monty Hall

Two weeks ago, on Saturday 30 September, two big names in mathematics died.  Vladimir Voevodsky, who was only 51, made huge contributions to mathematics.  I became aware of his importance to contemporary mathematics when reading Michael Harris's wonderfully stimulating book Mathematics without Apologies and regret that I do not know much about him and his work.

The other, Monty Hall, was not a mathematician but a game show host, who has given his name to one of the most famous recreational mathematical puzzles.  A lot has been written about the Monty Hall Problem: I recommend Jason Rosenhouse's book (called, surprisingly enough, The Monty Hall Problem, which gives an excellent account of the embarrassing (for male mathematicians) l'affaire Parade which brought the puzzle to public notice - see http://marilynvossavant.com/game-show-problem/ for the correspondence.

In Monty Hall's game show, a contestant had to choose one of three boxes.  One contained a car: the other two each contained a goat.  After the contestant had made their choice, Monty (who knew which box contained the car) would sometimes open the door of an unchosen box to reveal a goat, and then offer the contestant the chance to change their choice.  Should the contestant switch?

I remember, as a schoolboy, discussing with my friends a problem in one of Martin Gardner's books.  Three prisoners, A, B and C, are told that on the next day two of the three will be executed: which two has already been decided randomly.  (As I get older I increasingly find the rather bloodthirsty settings of puzzles like this in very poor taste: why do so many mathematical puzzles involve the abuse and execution of prisoners?)  A knows that his chance of survival is 1/3.  The guard won't answer any question which would give him information about whether or not he has been chosen for execution.  But A points out to the guard that at least one of the other two is going to die, so if the guard identifies to A one of the others who will die, then that cannot give any information about A's fate: whichever two have been selected, the guard can answer this question without revealing whether A has also been chosen.

So the guard tells A that C is going to die.  A is now happy: his survival chance was 1/3 but has now gone up to 1/2 since it is either him or B who will survive.

Of course (on certain assumptions) A is wrong: it is B whose survival chance has gone up to 2/3.  A's chance is unchanged at 1/3.  If A and B were selected to die, the guard would tell A that B was ill-fated.  If it was A and C to die, then the guard would answer "B".  Bit if B and C are both going to die, then the guard could answer either "B" or "C", and if one assumes the guard chooses randomly which to name, then enumerating the cases shows that when the guard answers "C", two times out of three it was A rather than B who is also selected for death.

This led me to get the Monty Hall Problem wrong when I first read about it in a newspaper article (the Independent, perhaps around Christmas 1990?)  Knowing that in the Gardner problem A's chances haven't changed, I assumed that the quiz show contestant can't improve their chance of winning by switching.  This is plain wrong, but I wonder if memories of Gardner's puzzle led astray many of the mathematicians who on first seeing it got the Monty Hall Problem wrong?  Although my initial answer was wrong, on careful reading of the analysis I did quickly come to agree that the contestant should switch, and verified this by computer simulation.

In fact, the problems are very closely related.  What Monty Hall is doing is essentially saying to A, "C is going to die - would you like to change places with B?"  And since B has a 2/3 chance of survival, A should certainly accept that offer.  (On certain assumptions.)

But the assumptions are critical (and most recent presentations of the Monty Hall Problem do make this clear.)  The 2/3 probability of winning if the contestant switches assumes that the host will always carry out the procedure, and that, when the contestant has initially chosen the box with the car, that the host will choose one of the other boxes to open with equal probability.  (If the host simply always opens the nearer box with the goat, then on the occasions when the host opens the further away box, the contestant will know that a switch guarantees success.)   And the host might not go through this procedure every time. If the host wants to save his employers money, then he might only offer the switch option on those occasions when the contestant has initially chosen the winning box.  If the host likes the contestant, he might only offer the switch option when the initial choice is losing.

In fact (according to, for example, the Wikipedia entry for Month Hall, in the real game show Monty did not always offer the choice.  He was playing a psychological game with the viewer, and, when "The Monty Hall Problem" became famous, he was well aware that the conditions necessary for the mathematical puzzle did not in fact apply to his game show.  I find it very pleasing that the game show host had a better understanding of the mathematics problem than many of the mathematicians whose instinctive answer, like mine, was wrong.

## Saturday, 23 September 2017

### How I won a jar of sweets

I was the proud winner of the Greenwich University MathSoc "guess how many sweets in the jar" competition at the Welcome Fair this week.

I was delighted to win because of the method I used, based on the "Wisdom of Crowds", which provided far superior to my colleagues' misguided attempts to estimate the volume of the jar and the average volume of the sweets.

With a problem like "how many sweets in the jar", no individual is likely to be able to make a particularly accurate estimate.  Some will guess in the right ballpark, while some will wildly over- or under- estimate.  The theory is, however, that if one averages many independent guesses, the result is likely to be close to the solution.

I tried this for my competition entry.  I could see seventeen previous entries, so I added them up (rounding to simplify the addition of seventeen three-digit numbers while talking to the MathSoc team at their stand) and divided by 17.  This gave me 337, which was my entry.  The exact solution was 336, which is a striking vindication of the Wisdom of Crowds.

Of course, this method isn't guaranteed to work.  For example, if one had asked people to guess how many points Leicester City would win in the English Premier League in 2015/16, and taken the average, one would not have been close!

## Monday, 12 June 2017

### Greenwich Maths Time - a Festival of Mathematics

Since it's only two weeks until the IMA Festival of Mathematics and its Applications at the University of Greenwich, which I am helping to organise, it's time I wrote something about it here. This national Festival presents, over two days, about 50 talks, workshops and activities, showcasing the diversity of mathematics and mathematicians.  Visitors can learn about applications of mathematics in statistics, cryptography, numbers, fashion, medicine, fire safety engineering, and many more: they can learn how to make boomerangs and they can walk on custard.  There is something for everybody!

The Festival has been generously sponsored by the IMA, the University of Greenwich, FMSP, GCHQ, the OR Society, the London South East and Kent & Medway Maths Hubs, and FDM,  For information about the sponsors, click on the logos on the Festival website.

I've been delighted that so many top presenters have agreed to take part in the Festival.  If you can get to Greenwich on either of these days, you'll have a wonderful time exploring lots of exciting mathematics!