Adventures with Android

A geocaching adventure gone wrong saw my phone disappear into the depths of a Latvian river and so I was in need of a replacement phone. My parents were kind enough to let me use one of their old phones and after unlocking it and acquiring a new sim card—both tasks ending up being more time-consuming than they should have been—nothing stood between me and the enjoyment of a new phone.

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What is Mathematics?

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to help out with the upcoming induction week for our mathematics undergraduate students. I am given one hour to give 70 students some idea of what they have come to study. After thinking about the question, “What is mathematics?”, I have found the following four-fold answer.

Mathematics helps us to…

  • … find precise answers to precise questions.
  • … find approximate answers to vague questions.
  • … interpret answers that seem precise but are not.
  • … figure out the right questions to ask.

Below I have tried to develop these points and to supplement them with examples. The text below is addressed at first year students of mathematics at Brunel University.

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Effect of Student Loans

Student loans are an everyday reality for thousands of students in the UK. The average debt for a graduate in England is £32,220, but it can be more than £50,000 for students from poorer families on a four-year course.

One can look at these and other numbers and make mathematical statements: What is the average time it will take a graduate to repay the loan? How to model the average value of a university degree compared to the hopefully higher salary of a graduate with the loan owed to the Student Loans Company. We ask our first-year students at Brunel to create a simplified model of their projected income and loan repayment. It is usually an educational experience for them.

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Alexa, Police and Privacy

It was reported in the media that a woman’s life was possibly saved by an Amazon Echo device placing a 911 call. During a dispute that turned violent with her boyfriend he allegedly said “Did you call the cops?” which the device interpreted as an instruction and placed the call. This story may sound convincing, but is also false. As explained in various articles on CNET, Wired, NY Times and other places, an Amazon Echo device cannot activated with the words “Did you” and more crucially cannot place a 911 call.

The idea however is out there. Both the Wired article, as well as a Chief Seattle Geek blog post explore the potential benefits of Alexa being able to call emergency services. This can be done intentionally after being instructed, “Alexa, call 999!”, or on the devices own initiative when it detects smoke from a smoke detector, hears gunshots or senses burglars.

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Academic Research for Sale

It was reported in the press this week, first by the Wall Street Journal, that Google has been paying money to academics at US and UK universities in exchange for research aligned with Google’s policy interests. The reporting is based in part on a report, compiled by the Campaign for Accountability, and was picked up by major newspapers. As expected, Google is rejecting the claims and as reported in Wired it seems that the report could have been compiled more carefully.

The facts however remain. Researchers have taken money from Google—in the form of fellowships and research grants—and then written academic papers expressing views favourable to Google partially without acknowledging Google’s financial contributions. After the dust settles we will be left with two questions:

  1. What is the damage?
  2. Who is to blame?

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Quo Vadis?

This post is not aimed at justifying this blog’s existence to the reader. In this day and age uninterested readers will simply stop reading and wander off to other blogs. Instead, this post is aimed at reminding my future self why I started to write this blog in the first place.

The world is becoming more and more mathematical. Behind expressions like big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, deep learning and data science lurks mathematics. The big five companies—Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft—rely on advanced algorithms in their day-to-day operations and so do countless others. Every day our lives are shaped by mathematics, often operating behind the scenes.

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