Cybermath column NZ Math Society Newsletter April 2017

This column takes a break from its recent heavy focus on publication reform to list a few interesting links more related to mathematical research and other professional issues. It is a partially fenced stream of consciousness, but may be useful all the same.

Laci Babai made a bold claim, which generated substantial publicity, that determining whether two graphs are isomorphic can be solved in quasipolynomial time. Harald Helfgott found a flaw while reading the paper deeply in order to present it to S\'{e}minaire Bourbaki, which I had no idea still existed. Babai retracted the claim on 4 January 2017, and reasserted it after fixing the proof on 7 January 2017. How long would this process have taken under the current journal system — would the error have been spotted at all? (sorry, couldn’t resist that). This is an important theoretical breakthrough and shows how well mathematics can work in the internet age.

Speaking of internet mathematics, there is a  journal of that name, devoted really to the mathematics of complex networks (what we used to call graphs before the marketers took over). Not only is the journal interesting and apparently well run, it uses the new platform  Scholastica (as does Tim Gowers’  Discrete Analysis). Another interesting fact is that the journal was formerly published by one of the traditional publishers (Taylor \& Francis), and they gave it up to the editors (not, however, before charging them for the back issues).

Getting back to mathematics on the internet, Polymath is still active, although generating less publicity than a few years ago. They are currently focusing on Rota’s basis conjecture:  if $B_1, B_2, \dots, B_n$ are disjoint bases of an $n$-dimensional vector space $V$  then there exists disjoint bases $C_1, \dots, C_n$ such that each $C_j$ contains one element from each $B_i$.

The arXiv has become very important to mathematicians. At my urging my university will become a financial supporter. I challenge other readers to get their institutions to do the same, rather than freeload as seems to be NZ policy in so many areas in recent years. Although it is cheap to run per paper, the total cost is nontrivial because there are so many papers. It is a challenge to keep up with new postings, so if you trust recommendation algorithms, try  arXivist (“your personal guide to the arXiv”) or Scirate to navigate it. An alternative is to visualise its million-plus papers as a complex network using Paperscape.

The arXiv idea has recently spread to disciplines with very little preprint tradition. The Center for Open Science has developed a preprint platform used by psychology, engineering, sociology and other fields. Maybe journals will change radically soon, after all.

Springer made many old volumes in its Graduate Texts in Mathematics series available for free download in late 2015. The direct links can be found easily by searching although they have apparently revoked the free deal. If they were serious, presumably they would remove the links.

If you want to attend a mathematical meeting in person rather than do everything via the internet, try MathMeetings.Net which aims to be a complete list.

I recently read (much of — far too many letters and namedropping for my taste to finish all of it) The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell. A controversial figure but certainly a mathematician (for part of his life) who followed his conscience wherever it took him. The American Mathematical Society is awarding the Bertrand Russell Prize every 3 years from 2018, for “research or service contributions of mathematicians or related professionals to promoting good in the world and recognizes (sic) the various ways that mathematics furthers human values.” Thomas Hales has apparently funded the prize. It would be good to see nominations (which close 30 June 2017) from this part of the world.

Of course, political activity by mathematicians can cause problems and muddy reputations, as the recently deceased great mathematician Igor Shafarevich found out. Other nonagenarians who have left us recently, in mathematics or related fields, include Kenneth Arrow, Joseph Keller, Howard Raiffa and Thomas Schelling. Going back a year, there is also Christopher Zeeman (whom I am sure visited NZ sometime), Fields Medallist Klaus Roth, while Felix Browder made it to 89. Best wishes to all readers aiming to make 100 while still doing mathematics! The longest-lived mathematician that I am aware of is Leopold Vietoris who not only lived during three centuries, has quite a few concepts named after him.

A rant about Lufthansa

Apologies, a rant is required. I just swore at someone on the phone, which is quite a rare occurrence. Read on to see why, if you dare.

Lufthansa is by far the worst airline I have ever had the misfortune to deal with (I haven’t flown on anything really unsafe, of course, but have flown in Iran on a Tupolev). Not only is their in-flight service embarrassingly behind my usual carriers such as Emirates, Singapore, Air New Zealand, their customer service is a joke. My wife has flown them twice in the last year.

Example 1: The first time she bought an in-class upgrade in order to make a further upgrade using Mileage Plus miles. Then was told that the upgrade was not possible. Nor was a refund and in-class downgrade. She flew in the same seat as before, and after 10 months they have offered to refund 20% of the cost, but still haven’t done it more than 3 weeks after asking for bank details. Each time I enquired it took weeks or months to get an email reply.

Example 2: She was denied boarding for LAX-Munich on a trip from Auckland to Europe (because of a newly enforced rule on passport validity that was not picked up at Auckland), and the other 5 legs of the trip were then cancelled. She had to buy a 1-way ticket home. Note that because my wife never made it to her invited conference talk, she doesn’t want to ask the organizers for any money, and they probably think she is being refunded by the airline. The original was bought through Expedia. After hours talking to Expedia we have been told that Lufthansa will within a few days let us know how much they will refund, and then it will take 10 weeks for a refund. I asked Expedia to transfer me to Lufthansa in order to discuss the extra costs incurred that were not on the ticket. The LH staff member told me this number is not for customers, only travel agents. She refused to give me any contact numbers other than the general US 1-800 number. Not wanting to start all over again and failing to convince her with reasoned argument I yelled and hung up.

I don’t want to make too many jokes about Germans, but there is some really stereotypical behaviour going on here. Is customer service, or basic human flexibility, such as difficult concept to grasp?

I strongly urge anyone reading this to avoid Lufthansa if possible. Other tips – never buy your own ticket if it is supposed to be reimbursed by others, get them to buy it directly; make sure your passport has 3 months validity past the end of your stay in Schengen area. And maybe consider cancellation insurance!

Predicting the 2015 Canadian election

The Canadian general election will be held on 19 October. The most basic prediction method uses the full district (“riding”) vote information from the last election (in 2011), the current poll estimate for national level support for each party, and a model of changes in district votes. There are two main models used in predicting elections under First Past the Post (single-winner plurality in districts), namely Uniform (additive) Swing and Proportional (multiplicative) Swing.

Based on the aggregate poll at, these two models predict the following point estimates for the seat distributions (after scaling up to account for the increase in parliament size since 2011):

Multiplicative: CON 133 NDP 71 LIB 125 BQ 7 GRE 1
Additive: CON 145 NDP 85 LIB 101 BQ 6 GRE 1

NDP have lost a lot of support in recent weeks, but it still looks as though no party will have an absolute majority and CON will be the largest party.

UPDATE 19 October (NZ time): using the latest poll estimate the models now give:

Multiplicative: CON 131 NDP 72 LIB 128 BQ 3 GRE 1
Additive: CON 137 NDP 86 LIB 109 BQ 5 GRE 1 predict: CON 120, NDP 71, LIB 141, BQ 5, GRE 1
Toronto Star predict: CONS 124, NDP 71, LIB 140, BQ 2, GRE 1

Let’s see the results tomorrow.

Election 2014: scorecards

I believe that systematic use of scorecards (report cards) by NGOs is helpful for voters. I haven’t found many used in the NZ context. By simple Google searches and personal knowledge I have found the following. Maybe more will come this week.

It is also useful to have the policies available without being told what to think about them.

  • A summary of parties’ policies on various issues at
  • The NZ Herald has a comparison of several parties’ “major” policies

Election 2014: research funding

This election, increasingly annoyed by the research funding situation, I decided to become (almost) a single-issue voter, and concentrate on what parties want to do to improve NZ’s chronic underfunding of science and research. My feeling after many election campaigns is that New Zealand just doesn’t value these things as much as other countries. However this may be unfair – we have had a more democratic system than many other countries, public goods are known to be underfunded if left to individuals, and more successful countries like USA have tended to fund research by stealth (under the Department of “Defense”) rather than make a strong case to the voters, or by fiat (e.g. Singapore). In any case, it is clear that as a country we have under-invested for decades, and that our relative slide in living standards is largely owing to a productivity problem which can (only) be fixed by increasing investment. Paul Callaghan (someone for whose work I have great respect, but I don’t use titles like “Sir” on principle) and Shaun Hendy (now my colleague at University of Auckland) have made this case at length in recent years, for example in books such as Wool to Weta and  Get Off the Grass. If you believe that “growing the national cake” is important, then this is a critical political issue.

The NZ Association of Scientists has made a submission (to which I made an infinitesimal contribution) to the National Statement of Science Investment feedback process, which sums up very well the problems with the current government’s policies. So much time in recent years has been wasted rebranding and reorganizing, losing institutional memory in the process ignoring the real problem: not enough money. Every new initiative seems to be funded by killing an old one, and this zero-sum attitude appears to be entrenched.

A very perceptive colleague in my department sent me the following:

… rather than attempting to become more like the “average” OECD nation with respect to R&D, I think it’s most likely National (and perhaps also Labour) will continue to (try to) emulate Ireland’s performance, i.e. to continue to run a lean/mean R&D machine with very little governmental funding.

I’m picking on Ireland because of a presentation I attended yesterday ( — the presenter from Ireland (Prof Ferguson) dropped some hints that suggest, to me, that folks in MBIE have been paying close attention to his story.

Ireland runs in the bottom-half of the EU pack for governmental R&D expenditure (only about 0.5% of its GDP!), but ranks near the top of that league for R&D impact on national economy (as measured by the EC).
NZ gov’t also spends about 0.5% of GDP on R&D, i.e. we’re running neck-and-neck with Ireland, suggesting that our government “merely” has to make our country more closely resemble Ireland in a few other ways before we’ll also enjoy a top-of-league economic payback on R&D expenditure. …

The NZAS also asked political parties some good questions  about their R&D policies. Not all the parties have responded. None of those that have responded are making the kind of commitment that I think is essential: double the Marsden Fund, for example. You can see the questions and answers here and make up your mind.

Governments worldwide apparently see research as an engine of economic growth (which perhaps it is) ignoring the less tangible benefits to be gained from intellectual growth.  A major side-effect of adopting the research mentality is better decision-making. Roughly speaking, my feeling is that businesses and government should try to learn how to run themselves more like the worldwide scientific/research enterprise, instead of trying to make it conform to their models. This involves (in theory) some well-known practices that still seem not very well used in wider society: avoidance of hierarchy (no authorities, only experts); recognition of human cognitive fallibility and processes devised to ameliorate it, such as methodologies for assessing evidence; using the wisdom of crowds to aggregate information; continuous improvement and a humble recognition that the “final” answer has probably not been obtained. Much current political practice seems to use the opposite of each of these practices.

If we allow the further degradation of our decision-making capability, other policies, no matter how good they may seem, will not be implemented properly. So, I will base my vote to a large extent on policies on research and tertiary education, with some serious attention to ethics and trust.


Election 2014: ethical standards

Media coverage of the election campaign so far has been dominated by allegations and revelations of unsavoury behaviour by various politicians and hangers-on.

The recent revelations by Nicky Hager  were shocking to me. I don’t believe that “everyone is doing it”, as some commentators and political actors claim; the sooner the people involved are flushed out of the system, the better. However, unless we do something to change the practice of politics, it is likely to happen again (with more secrecy, making it even more damaging).

Several commentators have called for more focus on policy, and less on people. In general, I agree with this. However, maybe this is misguided (I also suspect that in many cases it is self-serving, because “their” side is on the receiving end for once). Trust and ethical issues are certainly important in politics, and one can even argue that they are increasingly important, as more and more government decisions are made in a less than transparent way, and become technically difficult and hard for voters to understand. No amount of policy discussion will be useful if those charged with making major decisions on our behalf have ethical standards as low as have been revealed recently.

Debates about ethics in politics are often hijacked by spurious arguments about aspects of morality that are largely irrelevant. The Len Brown saga showed that politicians can behave poorly in their “private” lives. However salacious media coverage of his affair failed to follow up some important questions. Some small irregularities involving free hotel rooms were all that came out of the weeks (months?) of coverage. Despite complaining to the NZ Herald, I never saw any satisfactory investigative journalism or commentary on what I saw as a key issue: a candidate for local government with a recent conviction for dishonesty was put forward by her party without disclosing her past to the voters, and the media didn’t find out until after she became (in)famous for other reasons. As someone who voted for her, I feel completely taken advantage of.

In every profession (medicine, teaching, engineering, …) there are ethical standards, which carry severe penalties if broken. I am not sure whether there can be a more prescriptive code of ethics for politicians, for one reason because it is not supposed to be a profession (although at national level it largely is). An alternative to having to trust is to use greater transparency. We should have more information about what our representatives are doing, so as to judge their performance better. However I don’t see how the kind of behaviour that has been revealed recently can be prevented by increasing transparency.

This is why we have the press, the “fourth branch of government”. Recently it has become abundantly clear just how low the NZ mass media have sunk in the area of news and current affairs, and how intellectually weak their reporting is. Without a serious commitment (backed up by real money) to public service broadcasting, it is unlikely to improve. I am really surprised that this is not a bigger election issue. In the short term, issues such as the electoral system, public broadcasting, free speech and even education may not seem the most essential. In the long term, unless they are dealt with properly, everything else degrades because the quality of decision-making goes down. If I am reading the financial statement correctly, Radio NZ and TVNZ receive at most 1/4 of the government funding per capita of the ABC in Australia.

The reaction to a satirical column  by Toby Manhire shocked me. I thought I had some idea of the intellectual level of New Zealanders, or at least those who comment online. The fact that such a large percentage of readers did not recognize the article as satire was extremely depressing. Manhire’s columns are always worth reading, and almost always satirical, so this reaction was really unexpected. New Zealand culture has many very good features, but critical thinking and introspection have never been among them. Without help from high quality journalism, it becomes even more difficult for the public to concentrate on important issues. I must add that the weak tradition of public intellectuals in NZ, acting as the “critic and conscience of society” as universities are supposed to by law, exacerbates the situation.

We need to pay attention to the part of the body above the neck if this country is to thrive.

Election 2014: overview

NZ has a general election scheduled for 20 September 2014. While voting in an election is a very small part of democratic participation, it is undeniably important. I have spent substantial research time studying voting methods in general, and have submitted to the Electoral Commission review of MMP in 2012. The shelving of the Commission’s recommendations was disappointing. However I believe that overall New Zealand has a highly performing electoral system, compared to other countries. We should aim to optimize it, but the main problem with democracy lies elsewhere.

I am less confident now  than ever before that representative democracy can fulfil all the expectations we have of it. The rise of internet technology allows us to connect the public with its representatives much more easily than before. Perhaps it is time to think hard about whether our current system of (essentially) delegating a proxy vote is the best possible. I don’t have much insight yet on this topic, so will stick to the current paradigm for now. In other posts, to come soon, I will discuss a few issues related to the current election, from the perspective of a voter and an observer of politics, with no research agenda or claims to special knowledge.

In 2011 Geoffrey Pritchard and I produced an online simulator to predict the outcome of elections under several alternative voting systems under consideration in the referendum on MMP. Since MMP was confirmed by the referendum and no changes have yet been made to its parameters, this tool is of no real use in 2014. It is good to see that there are other online tools that aim to assist voters to make an informed choice. A new one getting a lot of publicity is VoteCompass. I tried it out yesterday, and it seems definitely worth using in order to get an idea of party policies and one’s own political preferences.

In the 2013 local elections, Generation Zero had useful scorecards rating the candidates, based on interviews and email surveys. I recall seeing simpler scorecards that rated party policies in specific areas for previous elections, but haven’t found any this year. A systematic presentation of these would be very helpful. Another idea is to look at voting records of representatives, and performance measures of members of parliament. Something like this is done in USA, by organizations such as the League of Women Voters. In general, if representative democracy is to work well, much more transparency is needed, and it should be as easy to compare candidates as it is to decide on which model of a particular consumer good to buy.

National Statement of Science Investment

Yesterday Minister Steven Joyce released the  NSSI and called for submissions (deadline 22 August). One useful feature is that it explains the current system.
It has become clear that huge changes have been made to the science funding system in the last few years. There have been some very worrying developments, such as the removal of the NZST postdoc scheme, the appallingly cronyistic way the National Science Challenges have been run, the disorganization of MBIE (look at their website sometime!), etc. The sheer amount and rate of change is perhaps the worst problem. It is surely time that some kind of multi-party consensus on science funding be forged, so such large changes don’t happen so often. Without high quality input from the sector, I don’t see that happening.

I urge everyone in the research sector (and maybe others) to consider participating in a submission. It is annoying that we seem to have to spend so much time on non-core business these days, but this is important enough (in my opinion) to be an exception to the apparent rule that one should ignore such ephemera and concentrate only on one’s own research.

We have met the enemy: part 1, pusillanimous editors

I have been semi-obsessively following developments related to the Elsevier boycott, open access publishing, and related issues for the last 2 years. Perhaps my idealist personality is always in need of a cause to fight. As so often in the past (e.g. the uprisings in Iran and Arab countries in the last few years), my initial hopes that the world would be reorganized in a more reasonable, fairer, and more efficient manner have not been fulfilled. There are many reasons why progressive movements fail. The goals may be unrealistic, there may be powerful individual incentives against collective action, etc. In the next few posts, I want to discuss why progress is so slow in moving to a new system of research publishing that almost everyone seems to think is inevitable and most think is desirable. I am not trying deliberately to be offensive, but I feel that the time is right to start talking more directly about the ethical standards of our research colleagues. Commercial publishers certainly don’t have the interests of science at heart, but they are not the main cause of the current malaise.

One reason for lack of change is the lack of a reason to change. I presume there are some people who still think the current journal system is close to optimal. This is likely a minority opinion, but still needs to be addressed.

Difficulties with the current system (System A)

  • Most journal titles are owned by for-profit companies (usually called “publishers”, but I will call them “owners”).
  • Each journal has a monopoly on its content.
  • Pricing information is deliberately made opaque by owners, using bundling and non-disclosure clauses in contracts.
  • Therefore, journal prices increase at a rate well above true costs, leading to huge profits by the owners and financial strain on libraries. For this, very limited access to content is given to the public.

A better version of the current system (System B)

  • Each journal is owned by a nonprofit society, university library, or similar organization.
  • Any publishing services required by the journal are contracted out transparently and competitively.
  • This should lead to lower overall subscription costs for libraries. The issue of public access is not addressed.

An alternative (System C)

  • Authors pay the up-front cost of publication.
  • Content is freely available to anyone.

This is usually called “gold open access”. Switching to such a system would lead to large savings overall compared to the current system. There are problems with exactly how authors pay, among other things.

System C deserves its own post. In the rest of this post, I want to discuss the more traditional options.

How to change from A to B

Owners accustomed to supernormal profits will resist giving up the exclusive right to use journal titles. Methods to achieve the desired result include

  • Asking assertively.
  • Threatening to move the editorial board to another publisher (changing the name, but making it clear that the “real” journal will be moving and the traditionally named one is not supported by the editorial board.
  • Carrying out such a threat.

Why has so little happened?

Tim Gowers’ latest post includes the following:

There were rumblings from the editorial boards of some Elsevier journals, but in the end, while a few individual members of those boards resigned, no board took the more radical step of resigning en masse and setting up with a different publisher under a new name (as some journals have done in the past), which would have forced Elsevier to sit up and take more serious notice. Instead, they waited for things to settle down, and now, two years later, the main problems, bundling and exorbitant prices, continue unabated: in 2013, Elsevier’s profit margin was up to 39%. (The profit is a little over £800 million on a little over £2 billion.)

I find this very hard to understand. There is a clear path to follow, demonstrated by several editorial boards. I read some comments about deliberations by the editors of Journal of Number Theory in 2012. Apparently: (attributed to Urs Hartl) “in a recent vote among the 36 editors – 19 wanted the divorce – 6 didn’t – 6 were not ready to commit at this time and abstained – 5 didn’t respond.” It would be very interesting to read public comments from some of the editors.

An anecdote: I was asked to referee a paper by an Associate Editor (whom I dont know personally) of the Elsevier journal Discrete Mathematics. After rejecting this because of the Elsevier boycott, I received an email from this Associate Editor.

If you have a colleague who is an Elsevier editor, take a look at
their tools for managing a journal.   Similar open source tools could
be developed, but  serious dedicated resources would be needed.
Working at [redacted] and on software for [redacted] have taught me not to underestimate the task of creating top notch tools.  Besides tools, Elsevier provides large databases of
potential referees, referee reviewing history, and on-line access to
large libraries of papers.  They make it very easy to manage the
editorial process.   Their tools have helped our efforts to improve
the journal Discrete Mathematics.

Having these tools available has made it possible to keep plugging
away given the turmoil in the peer reviewing process.  I have handled
a nontrivial number of papers for which finding willing reviewers was
a challenge.  I’ve found that the Elsevier tools (together with Google
Scholar) have made it possible for me to ultimately end up with two
reports for even the most troublesome paper.   By the way, I feel that
referees should be compensated; I’ve  articulated this view several
times to Elsevier when I’ve had the chance to provide suggestions.
However, there seems to be little opportunity to change things, even
in token ways.  Although I would like to more precise, I think all I
can say is that Discrete Mathematics associate editors get a mid-four
figure salary (in US$), enough not to feel taken advantage of, but
less than it should be.   I also know that the chief editor receives
quite a bit more, as he should.

…  Everyone on the editorial board resonates with many of the
complaints raised by the boycott.   But we all have decided to
continue working on the journal and encouraging Elsevier to change
many of its ways.  I feel I am doing a service to the authors and to
the mathematical community by this work.

Let’s address the main points raised here:

  • The owner provides me with a lot of useful software tools to do my job.

Since I am not an Elsevier editor I can’t comment on their tools. My recollection from the time when I was an Elsevier referee is that the Elsevier Editorial System was nothing special.

However, I do have considerable experience as an editor using Open Journal Systems software. My enquiry to the Associate Editor about which features EES has that OJS doesn’t was met with silence. Does anyone reading this have a good answer?

  • The owner pays me thousands of dollars a year.

My own opinion is that this is scandalous. I am sure not everyone will agree. It certainly creates a strong impression in my mind of conflict of interest.

  • I am working to change the system from the inside.

Concessions made by Elsevier so far to a strong campaign by researchers have amounted to not much more than reduction in rates of price increase and freeing up of archives in some subject areas that don’t substantially impact the profitability of Elsevier. It is not remotely enough. My enquiry to the Associate Editor as to his progress in changing things was met with silence.

My conclusions, in the absence of further information: senior researchers by and large are too comfortable, too timid, too set in their ways, or too deluded to do what is needed for the good of the research enterprise as a whole. I realize that this may be considered offensive, but what else are the rest of us supposed to think, given everything written above? I have not even touched on the issue of hiring and promotions committees perpetuating myths about impact factors of journals, etc, which is another way in which senior researchers are letting the rest of us down (there are very few prepared to do what Randy Schekman has). That might be a topic for another post.

I very much hope that this post will stimulate serious discussion and we can really hear some principled reasons why, at the very least, we haven’t seen more progress toward System B, or a cheaper version of System A. Senior researchers invested in the current system, please let us know your views!