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Timothy Gowers
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Timothy Gowers

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We are often told that the journal system must be protected at all costs because of the value added to our papers by the rigorous system of peer review. I question that statement, but it is a respectable position to take and there are plenty of people I respect who take it.

But sometimes people start to wonder whether supposedly respectable journals are doing their job properly. One such person is Dorothy Bishop, a psychologist at Oxford, who got suspicious about two Elsevier (who else?) journals, Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Research in Developmental Disabilities. In particular, she thought that editors were getting their own papers published in these journals too easily.

But how does one prove an assertion like that when the refereeing process is not public? She had the following great idea. In her words,

Evidence on this point is indirect, because the published journals do not document the peer review process itself. However, it is possible to look at the lag from receipt of the paper to acceptance, which can be extracted separately for each individual paper. I have looked at this further using merged data on publication lag with information available from Web of Science to create a dataset that contains all papers published in RIDD between 2004 and 2014, accompanied by the dates for receipt and acceptance of papers.

For her fascinating findings, have a look at the blog post I'm linking to. They don't look good ...
Elsevier, the publisher of Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders (RASD) and Research in Developmental Disabilities (RIDD) is no stranger to controversy. It became the focus of a campaign in 2012 because of its pricing strateg...
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This is even worse than pay-to-play journals. Sigh.
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A review of X+Y by a Trinity undergraduate and recent IMO contestant. The review confirms the impression I got from the trailer. It is also notable for being unafraid to mention actual mathematics in a mainstream newspaper. 
 
There's a mathsy film out on Friday, X+Y, about a young autistic prodigy competing at the International Maths Olympiad. It's got big British stars, and is being hyped quite a bit...So, I asked a former British maths olympian to review X+Y for my Guardian blog and explain whether the movie gets it right.
The high pressure world of international maths tournaments is brought to life in the much-anticipated British movie X+Y. Here a former contestant reveals the maths, the alcohol and the sexual intrigue of these events and tells us whether the film gets it right
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The review says that the cards problem is "entirely trivial", so its use in preparation for IMO is "highly unrealistic". I'm not sure I buy that. A few months ago I was helping a relative to learn math. He wanted something a bit more challenging than he was doing in school. Every once in a while I was looking at IMO problems to see if I find something suitable to discuss. And here's what I once used: http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/leino/puzzles.html#A%20game%20of%202014%20cards

This was, I think, from IMO2009 (shortlisted?long-listed? used? I'm not even sure what these terms mean...) Anyway, perhaps this IMO problem is easier than your average IMO problem, and also a little more difficult than the "entirely trivial" one from the movie. Still, I wouldn't criticize that part of the movie as "highly unrealistic".
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Today I received an email encouraging me to submit to Open Mathematics, published by de Gruyter. This used to be the Central European Journal of Mathematics, but changed its name when switching to an APC model recently. The publishers ... er ... accidentally forgot to consult the editorial board before doing this, with the result that the current editorial board is almost disjoint form the old one.

I was curious to know what the article processing charges are for the journal, so I had a look. It took a very long time before I finally got to the correct page. Here it is, in all its glory. I wonder if they have something to hide ...

Edit: it's clear that most people can see the page, so will not understand that last sentence. Here's what I get when I try to look at it.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/uk4nz3rsen0t00i/Screenshot%202015-03-05%2011.22.29.png?dl=0
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+Timothy Gowers Could this be an issue with pdf viewer? I had a similar image with the default viewer on this computer, but opening it in adobe acrobat renders it with actual text.
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Yesterday a new world record for ski jumping was set. It's not a sport that hugely interests me, but there's something about this video that I find very compelling. About two thirds of the way through his jump, the Slovenian ski jumper Peter Prevc is clearly about to land, but then the laws of physics appear to be suspended so that instead of travelling in a parabolic arc, he continues in a straight line more or less parallel to the track and only very slightly above it. Of course, this must have a lot to do with aerodynamics but it is still extraordinary to look at.
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For those interested in the official specification of hill parameters: http://www.fis-ski.com/mm/Document/documentlibrary/Skijumping/03/19/96/ICRSkiJumping2014_English.pdf (pages 46-51).
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I can't say I'm too impressed by the final-year economics students at Sheffield referred to in this article. The question they complained about is one that you don't need to have learnt any serious economics to be able to do: common sense and A-level calculus are sufficient. Basically it's what Americans call a word problem: once you've stripped out the words, it asks you to maximize sigma N^{1/2} - gamma N^2, which I would hope an about-to-graduate economist would know how to do. With the words back in again, N represents the number of people in a city, sigma N^{1/2} is the output per person, and gamma N^2 is the "coordination cost" associated with the city. The question also asks for a bit of qualitative discussion, such as why the exponent of N in the coordination cost might be expected to be greater than 1. (Answer: because the number of other people each person have to coordinate with will tend to grow as the size of the city grows. The exponent of 2 would suggest that it grows linearly, which seems highly implausible, but the question doesn't ask you to defend that.)
Final year economics students at Sheffield University are furious after an exam this week contained "impossible" questions.
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Leaving aside the question of the merits of their cause, I am curious whether these students calculated the expected return of complaining so publicly before they did it. It might have been better for everyone involved to keep it quiet.
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The Universities Superannuation Scheme, the fund that pays pensions for university staff in the UK, announced a few months ago that it had a huge deficit and that changes were going to be necessary, which, to put it bluntly, mean that we'll get smaller pensions than we thought we were going to. I'm amazed that it's legal -- I thought I was entering into some kind of contract when I signed up for the scheme -- but I suppose there must be some small print somewhere that enables them to do it. 

Recently they put out a document that has a FAQ. One of the answers they give could, it seems to me, be abbreviated to "yes". The question is "Will I lose my final salary benefits?" The answer they give is this.

The final salary section of the scheme will close, but existing final salary benefits will be protected at the point of change, calculated on pensionable salary and service at that date and increased each year in line with the CPI.

Suppose, then, that you are in mid-career. Then you will have put in several years of pension contributions on the understanding that your reward will be 1/80 of your final salary for each year's worth of pension. Now, if I understand correctly, the reward will for those contributions that you made on that understanding in fact be 1/80 of your current salary, adjusted for inflation, which is likely to be considerably less.

I'm posting this not because I have a deeper point to make, but simply to urge UK academics to look closely at what is on offer and not be fooled by the gentle sounding language in which it is explained: these changes are likely to make you thousands or even ten thousands of pounds worse off per year when you retire.

They promise to provide an "online benefits calculator" from next Monday. I'm guessing it will tell you what your benefits are likely to be, but not the amount by which they are less than the benefits you would have received under the current system. But we shall see about that.
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"I suppose there must be some small print somewhere that enables them to do it."  I wouldn't be too sure.  In the US it's become quite common for governments to renege on payments owed to workers, on the grounds that they just don't have the money.  Sometimes the courts allow this, sometimes they don't.
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I stood in Great Court, Trinity College this morning from about 9am till 11am, hoping to view the eclipse of the sun, which was partial when viewed from Cambridge but reached 85% at about 9:30. We noticed it get somewhat murky and a bit colder at around that time, but there was a thick layer of cloud (which looked thicker than it was because of the lessened sunlight) so we didn't see the sun at that point. There was quite a large crowd, but when the day started to get lighter again most of them dispersed. But a few diehards, of whom I was one, couldn't bear to leave when there was a chance that the clouds would get thin enough for us to see something, and we were eventually rewarded at about 10:10, and several times after that. For viewing a partial eclipse, thin cloud is pretty ideal, because you can look at the sun with the naked eye (though even then it isn't sensible to look for too long) just as you sometimes can when there isn't an eclipse at all. Here's one of several photos I took on my phone. One of my colleagues had set up some eclipse viewing equipment, and just before it ended the skies cleared to the point where it was no longer possible to look directly at the sun but one could view a very good image of it projected on to a piece of white card.

Amusing observation: of the people who stuck around for the full two hours, a large proportion were mathematicians. I was sorry to lose the work time, and sorry not to see the sun more covered, but despite that it was definitely worth it.
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I live in the path of totality for the 2017 eclipse, so I'm looking forward to that.  I may take my class out to watch.
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An opportunity to hear mathematicians talking about what it's really like to do research, including dispelling several myths, such as the persistent one that it helps to have mental problems. Vicky Neale is one of the other guests, and another one is the director of the recent film X+Y (which I haven't seen but which appears to promote that myth). Cedric has done a huge amount of this kind of thing in France -- it's great to have him doing some of it in the UK too. I hope the programme is available outside the UK but don't know how to check that.
On Start the Week Tom Sutcliffe finds out what goes on inside the mind of a mathematician. Cédric Villani explains the obsession and inspiration which led him to being awarded the Fields Medal, 'the mathematicians' Nobel Prize' in 2010. Zia Haider Rahman combines pure maths, investment banking and human rights in his exploration of how abstract theory can impact on real life. Vicky Neale reveals the beauty of prime numbers, while the director Mor...
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+Timothy Porter - madness seems to consist of acting sufficiently far from the norm that people shun you, or lock you up.  If you can't act normal enough to avoid that fate, there must be something wrong with you. 
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Outpsyching two children at once

My 4-year-old and 7-year-old both used to want to get out first when they had a bath together. And when I say "want" I mean wanting of the big-fuss-if-you-don't-get-your-way variety. Over the last year or so, this has resulted in an elaborate evolution of procedures for getting them both out of the bath without tedious scenes from at least one of them. (I've sometimes mismanaged it to the extent that they have both ended up in tears, but fortunately that's the exception rather than the rule.)

Initially it was fairly simple: they just took turns. The younger one complained when it wasn't her turn, but she got used to the system. But then new grounds for complaints came in. They would have a hairwash every other day, and after a while the 7-year-old started saying things like, "It's unfair that I never get to get out first when it isn't hairwash day." So for a while we tried a system where one child would get out first for two days, and then the other, and so on. That created another difficulty -- that of remembering where we were in the cycle -- but it wasn't too bad. Another problem was that the 4-year-old (then 3) didn't really understand the system, and would say things like, "But Octave got out first yesterday!" which would be true.

Sometimes our normal routine would be disrupted -- for example, if we were out and got back too late for them to have a bath. I think it was something like that that threw me so much that I resorted to tossing a coin to decide who should get out first. That opened up a whole new can of worms. First of all, my 7-year-old liked the system and asked for a coin to be tossed every evening. So far so good, though of course there would be occasional lucky streaks for one child and consequent complaints by the other. But then a new dispute arose. For some time the 4-year-old always wanted to be tails and the 7-year-old always wanted to be heads. But then the 4-year-old decided she too wanted to be heads, and the 7-year-old was not ready to change. 

Oh, another development I've forgotten to mention is that at some point the reward for the winner was not to get out of the bath first, but to choose who got out of the bath first, because they stopped automatically wanting to get out first. For quite some time, the 4-year-old would, when she had the choice, say that the 7-year-old was getting out first, and he would say, "Ha ha ha -- that's what I wanted anyway," but after a while she got wise to it and better at calculating what would annoy her brother. 

Anyhow, going back to the coins, I introduced a new element, which was a guess-which-hand routine. The person who guessed which hand the coin was in got to decide whether they were heads or tails. No prizes for guessing what happened then: they both wanted to guess my left hand. 

The most baroque procedure I ever used was a four-round one. I started by insisting that the 7-year-old chose tails and the 4-year-old chose heads. Then the winner of that round got to choose whether they were heads or tails for the next round, and so on. Then the winner of the last round chose who got out of the bath first. The idea was that the injustice of the first round would not be keenly felt after a few subsequent rounds, since by then usually both children would have won at least one round and had the illusion of controlling their destiny.

Finally to what happened yesterday. I didn't have a coin on me so I did a what-hand procedure. A trick I've introduced recently is to play this in rounds too. If they both choose the same hand, I then open my hands to show them which one contained the object, and we have another round. This sometimes induces them to change hand, and after a round or two I usually end up with them choosing different hands.

Yesterday, I had a new problem. They both chose my left hand, but just as I was opening my hands to show them that they had both been right, my daughter (the 4-year-old) switched her guess to my right hand. So I told my son that he could choose who got out first. Unsurprisingly, my daughter complained about this on the grounds that she had chosen my left hand too. 

It was a bit of a grey area, so I decided I had better run the game again. But that was a little unfair on my son. So what I needed to do to make everything work out was ensure that my son would win again. The point of this post is that that was possible. I don't know quite how I was so certain, but it was obvious to me that my 4-year-old would reason, "It was in his left hand last time, so it will be in his left hand," while my 7-year-old would reason, "It was in his left hand last time, so it will be in his right hand." So I put it in my right hand, and my daughter did indeed choose my left hand and my son my right hand. For what it's worth, my son then chose that my daughter should get out first, and my daughter was OK with that decision.

My guess is that there is a development stage that my son has been through and my daughter is yet to go through. Certainly there are interesting experiments in the psychological literature -- testing things like whether children can put themselves in the position of other people -- that would suggest that something like that is going on. But my son's development isn't yet finished: when he's a few years older, he will realize that there isn't just bluff, but also double bluff, treble bluff etc. and then neither of us will be able to outpsych the other. 
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How to bring up compulsive gamblers?!
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A couple of days ago, much amusement was caused after a meeting between the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, and his German counterpart, Wolfgang Schäuble, when Schäuble summed it up by saying that they agreed to disagree, and Varoufakis summed it up by saying that they did not even agree to disagree.

This reminded me strongly of the liar paradox, or more precisely its cousin that consists of the following two sentences.

1. The next sentence is true.

2. The previous sentence is false.

That reformulation is considered important by philosophers because it shows that certain explanations of the liar paradox are insufficient. The explanations in question are ones that say that it boils down to problems with the notion of a sentence that refers to itself. But these sentences do not refer to themselves, and are often unproblematic. For instance, consider the following two sentences.

1. Mitt Romney is the president of the United States of America.

2. The previous sentence is false.

I tried thinking about whether the statements by the finance ministers could be turned into a genuine liar-type paradox, and have run into problems, though I haven't managed to convince myself that it cannot be done. Here are a couple of failed attempts.

1. This sentence agrees with the next sentence.

2. This sentence disagrees with the previous sentence.

This isn't a paradox, because the first sentence is false and the second one is true, or at least we can consistently take that to be the case. 

I've tried a few other things, and am coming to the conclusion that we probably can't make a paradox if we just talk about agreement of sentences and not their actual truth values. For instance, consider the first sentence above in a slightly different form.

1'. The truth value of this sentence is the same as the truth value of the next sentence.

If that sentence is true, then the next sentence is true, and if that sentence is false, then the next sentence is again true. So we can decide that the next sentence is true and then whatever it implies about the truth of 1' will be compatible with that decision. A similar problem occurs with this sentence.

1'. The truth value of this sentence is different from the truth value of the next sentence.

This time we obtain that the next sentence is false either way, so again we can choose the truth value of 1' to make everything work.

Going back to the Greek and German finance ministers, let's assume that one of the items on their agenda was the question of whether they agreed to disagree. The German minister said yes, and the Greek minister said no. So they disagreed about it. But did they agree to disagree about it? A reasonable interpretation of the evidence is that they did not agree to disagree about it (or else the Greek finance minister would have said that they had agreed to disagree), that the German finance minister is not telling the truth, and that the Greek finance minister is telling the truth. But another interpretation is that they did agree to disagree, and it is the German finance minister who is telling the truth.
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The paradox of the liar vanishes if we treat truth and falsehood as a local and temporal condition or value and not some Platonic universal.
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This is Christopher Gunning's wonderful obituary of my father, who died just under a month ago. I posted in November 2013 about what it felt like to turn 50. But that pales into insignificance next to losing my father, as those who have experienced both will know well. At some point I may try to say something about his interest in science, mathematics and computing, and how his scientific way of thinking deeply influenced his composition (not to mention deeply influencing my whole life). 
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sorry to hear the bad news. :(
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I thought I'd seen it all with apparent spirals that turn out to be circles. But this piece of weaving that isn't weaving is pretty disturbing. Sorry not to be able to make it full size but if you click on the link you'll see what I'm talking about.
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I've since forgotten the source (appropriately enough) but there was some study [citation needed] indicating that when possible we don't actually make new memories, we just relabel and patch together old ones. It saves space to just recontextualize. I walk basically the exact same path to work every day, and at the end of it I have a "memory" of walking to work but no idea of when that memory was created. I noticed a similar thing happening during highschool, so it kicks in at least by then.
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