Melvyn's newsletter - Random and Pseudorandom - 13/01/2010

Random numbers.


I've got to get this right. In the heat and speed of live radio there are times when you trip up badly and I did that this morning. Marcus du Sautoy had given one of his most elegant and clear expositions on what, for most of us, is an abstruse corner of mathematics, and I, in my rush to get on with the programme, called it 'confused' and then, when he looked a bit startled, corrected it to 'complicated'. Neither word was right. He's never confused and if he is complicated it's because he's on the way to clarifying what he says. Marcus made no objection to this. I'm sure we are still fellow supporters of Arsenal. He was far too polite to mention it. But I want to record it because I got it wrong.

Now to the question of dice. I discovered - too late - that you can say dice meaning one die. I felt a bit of a clot saying die all the time, but Tom Morris, the producer, was quietly insistent. It turned out that all the contributors used dice for one die. Tom had said he would produce a die, or a dice, for the introduction in order that I could roll it. He scoured London - or at least a 300-yard circuit of Broadcasting House - and could find none, not even in Hamleys. Fortunately, I'd taken to wearing my football coat, which is approximately twenty-five years old, and has pockets stuffed like those I gloried in as an eight to twelve year old. Just William pockets. This is one of the ways that life comes full circle. And, lo and behold, in a deep corner was a small die, or dice. So, under supervision, I rolled it and got three fours on the trot, as well as another four. The three fours on the trot beguiled the three contributors. I think it's all becoming too patterned here!

I went for a meeting with Tom and the programme's editor, Alice Feinstein, to discuss a new idea hatched by Tom; and because of the Today programme yesterday on the supposed demise of marmalade, I had some. I can't remember the last time I tasted it, but perhaps the demise has something to do with the blandness of the current product. It was perfectly okay. But it was too sweet, it was too thin, it was not bitter enough and didn't have bits of orange rind stuck in it and it wasn't a dark marmalade colour. Apart from that, I enjoyed it. I think that Democritus must be absolutely right about coincidence. When I arrived in the House of Lords I bumped into Oliver Henley, who is a front bench Conservative peer. He hails from Cumberland and, completely out of the blue (save for Democritus), began to talk about marmalade. He had mentioned in his newsletter that he was a dab hand at making marmalade and requests were now coming in. This randomness is all too much. We once had a cat called Marmalade.

Now back to the programme. Marcus said at the end that the programme itself had been random which suited the subject perfectly. Tom and I thought it had been quite carefully structured! Tim Gowers mentioned that a colleague of his, Frank Kelly, at Cambridge had been contacted by BT because, having spent millions on trying to reroute messages from exchanges, they were stumped and thought - what a realisation! - that they ought to talk to a leading man in the field at Cambridge. He told them what to do in about ten sentences and the problem was solved.

It's rather a wonder that people like the three on this morning's programme don't go into the City and make millions. That's what hedge funds (as they mentioned after the programme) are all about. The idea of the Random Walk, which is a central characteristic of research into randomness, is an essential factor in the modelling of hedge funds. I can only assume that they are far too absorbed in their research and teaching to want to go and clean up in the City.

Just a last M. After Marcus and marmalade there is Monopoly. When I left Broadcasting House I dipped into Mayfair, went along Oxford Street, down Bond Street, into Piccadilly and realised that I'd walked all over the Monopoly board of my youth and remembered games with the Lions Gang in each others' kitchens on winter nights long ago.

To cap it all, I bought a cap in a sale in St James's. It's obviously a day for puns as well as coincidences.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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