Aug 22 2010

“Intimidating equations”

Taking lessons from Goldacregate, I’ve removed all the rant and sarcasm from this post.
In this article in today’s Observer, we’re advised that this:
PA = gUG + min(k – g, (1 – g)(1 – r))
is an “intimidating” equation”. Only if we’re easily scared! It relates the profit gained from dynamically priced airline tickets to some variables. This equation really is a very straightforward it says:
“profit equals two things multiplied together plus the smallest of two other things”
Using a Greek letter (capital pi) with a superscript following is a bit of showmanship, P would have done perfectly well in this instance. You can read the paper from which it is drawn here. It is written in the style of a paper in pure mathematics, which might explain the intimidation of the journalists in question.
I wrote a little bit about maths a while back: maths is the language of much of the science I do, but its a convenient tool – it’s not an end in itself. The seed of “Goldacregate” was a query by a journalist as to how to read out an equation, the thing is that practitioners rarely speak equations out loud: they scribble them on the nearest available surface (often illegibly, and incorrectly) or fight endless battles with machines to get them into electronic documents. Furthermore there is a long and dishonourable history of public relations companies using essentially meaningless equations to promote products and services.
For non-users of equations they are simply a cloak, a cloud of chaff thrown up to hide the truth beneath. For users, they are a compact and exact way of writing down the truth.
The next time you see an equation, don’t be scared beneath it there is something simple which can be said.
Unexpurgated version: Ah, bless, the economists are playing at being scientists by using an equation and the journalists have got the vapours at the impossible complexity of it all. Nasty equation: please, don’t hurt me.

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