Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Clinton mention

Hillary Clinton, campaigning in Iowa, took note of DeWitt Clinton (not a relation of hers):
“I did a little research,” Mrs. Clinton said at a town-hall-style event at Eagle Heights Elementary School in Clinton on Saturday. “Clinton County is named for DeWitt Clinton, the sixth governor of New York,” Mrs. Clinton continued. “He was the person who said, ‘We’re going to build a canal from the Hudson River down to Lake Erie all the way across New York.’ ”
Me: It was odd to see the subject of my in-progress book show up on the campaign trail. This political season has been a rather engrossing distraction. One thing I admire greatly about DeWitt Clinton is that, even though he was a professional politician, his interests outside politics were many, deep and varied.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A benefit of fighting climate change

There's an interesting piece at Bloomberg Gadfly "Oil's Sum of All Fears" (found via David Frum) discussing that oil prices have departed from their historical tendency to spike when there is geopolitical tension (especially in the Mideast). This passage suggested some factors helping explain what's changed:
In October, BP's chief economist gave a speech on the "New Economics of Oil". In this brave new world, shale resources' vast reserves, short lead times and low upfront investment upend the notion that OPEC's own underground riches are bound to rise in value over time as everyone else's wells run dry. Adding to this is pressure on the demand side in the form of political and technological momentum to limit the burning of fossil fuels.
That last line points to one of the great under-appreciated but obvious facts of our time: trying to limit climate change is not a distraction from our geopolitical problems (as it's often presented as being on the right) but rather an integral part of dealing with those problems. Less dependence on fossil fuels brings a raft of economic and national security benefits, as well as environmental ones: less vulnerability to oil price spikes; and less revenue for terror groups and hostile states. And that's even without assuming any success in fighting climate change; any benefits on that score also have geopolitical benefits, such as less likelihood of droughts such as can exacerbate refugee crises.

If you want better national security, avoid at all costs candidates who say things like this, and ones who don't even understand their own obscurantist arguments about a global warming "pause."

Monday, January 4, 2016

Rethinking the 6% scientists are Republicans meme

I used to be more impressed by these figures, which were cited today by Paul Krugman.

I cited the "6% of scientists are Republicans" figure in various discussions and articles a few years ago. At the time, I also noted that there was some uncertainty as to how accurate the figure was, given that it was based on a sampling of AAAS members. That concern has grown in recent months, precisely because I lately have become an AAAS member in order to subscribe to the journal Science. I already knew that becoming a member does not require being a scientist (I am a part-time science journalist) but the distinction between "AAAS member" and "scientist" has been underscored for me by (a) actually attaining membership for the price of a magazine subscription and (b) receiving subsequent mailings inviting me to further professional memberships, such as in a chemical society, and even being told I was "specially selected" as an AAAS member or some such.

Lest I be misunderstood, I continue to believe that the 6% figure, though clearly not a precise measurement, points to a real problem of heightened alienation between scientists and Republicans. But seeing it repeated now, years later, with no qualifications, does not much incline me toward Krugman's argument, to wit that there's no sign of academia moving left, it's just that crazy Republicans moved right. The current GOP overall is indeed too right-wing for me, as I've made clear, but craziness at one end of the political spectrum often begets and is abetted by craziness at the opposite terminus, and pretending that's not so is a sign you may be succumbing to it yourself.

BTW I came across Krugman's piece via this tweet, with which I sympathize greatly,  by Jonathan Haidt:

Friday, January 1, 2016

Some mostly math-related books

I've just made a few purchases of math-related books:

Edward Frenkel's phenomenally good book Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality is out in paperback, and I wanted to have it on hand. I interviewed Frenkel about a year ago, after reading a library copy of the hardcover. I'd certainly add this if I were doing a new version of my 10+ most influential books, as it got me into learning and writing about math on an ongoing basis.

One of the first things I did in that direction, after reading Frenkel's book, was take Jo Boaler's class How to Learn Math: for Students, which was valuable for thinking about math education (the course had only a limited sampling of math), which I'm interested in as a personal and political matter. I've now ordered her book Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students' Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching, and may review it at some point here.

Also ordered: Patterns of the Universe: A Coloring Adventure in Math and Beauty, which certainly looks interesting.

Recently finished reading: Finding Zero: A Mathematician's Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers, by Amir Aczel, which is a nice blend of math, history and travelogue, and involves searching for the first zero through South and Southeast Asia.

Current non-math reading: Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, by Jon Meacham. Quite interesting thus far (I'm up to around 1960) and elegaic, with much of the world described seeming not quite as distant as the ancient civilizations described in the zero book above, but pretty distant nonetheless.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The terrible reality of the GOP race

I haven't had much time to blog lately, but the Republican presidential race is going in too much a worst-case-scenario-ish direction to be ignored. Those of us who tried pushing the Republican Party onto a reformist and moderate track have to acknowledge that the effort has been manifestly unsuccessful. Those who took the view that a harder-line or more forceful conservatism (or just "say it louder") is the right direction will now have to face the grim reality of their wish coming true.

I agree with this headline and the gist of the article: "Win or Lose, Trump Has Already Left His Mark on Republican Primary." Excerpt (click to enlarge):

Me: Jonathan Chait's piece "How Donald Trump Opened the Door for Ted Cruz to Win," also aptly summarizes the state of the party, even if I don't feel quite as confident that Cruz will come out on top (though he may well). The thing we can be most sure of is that what once would have been considered a hard right candidate is likely to emerge, and any semblance of moderation will only be an illusion created by the alternatives along some dimension of policy or affect. Excerpt from Chait (click to enlarge):

Me: To describe all the above as anything short of a disaster would, it seems to me, require some shielding from reality. It's a disaster for the GOP and ultimately for the United States, which needs but does not have a rational and lucid alternative to the Democrats. I have voted Republican in every presidential election since my first (1984) with one exception (1992) when I voted Libertarian. But even with a flawed prospective candidate, the Democrats can expect -- and by current trends, will deserve -- a landslide in 2016, and my vote with it.

UPDATE 12/11: I am in strong agreement with this passage from Jennifer Rubin (click to enlarge):

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Antiscience identity politics

There was a time, aka the 1990s, when the postmodern left and science were notably at odds. I've long cherished this anecdote:
When social psychologist Phoebe Ellsworth took the podium at a recent interdisciplinary seminar on emotions, she was already feeling rattled. Colleagues who'd presented earlier had warned her that the crowd was tough and had little patience for the reduction of human experience to numbers or bold generalizations about emotions across cultures. Ellsworth had a plan: She would pre-empt criticism by playing the critic, offering a social history of psychological approaches to the topic. But no sooner had the word "experiment" passed her lips than the hands shot up. Audience members pointed out that the experimental method is the brainchild of white Victorian males. Ellsworth agreed that white Victorian males had done their share of damage in the world but noted that, nonetheless, their efforts had led to the discovery of DNA. This short-lived dialogue between paradigms ground to a halt with the retort: "You believe in DNA?"
Then a lot happened. Postmodernism faded as an academic force. Tensions between conservatives and scientists increased, most saliently on climate and evolution. Left-wing antiscience turned into a relatively obscure issue, albeit one that this blog, with its affinity for obscurity, occasionally visited.

However, if anyone thinks that science is going to be untouched by the current inflammation of PC leftism on campuses and beyond, let's just say "You believe in DNA?" has spawned more questions in febrile young minds:

I've written in the past about a possible switcheroo of pro- and anti-science positions in the political spectrum. I was thinking of a decades-long timeframe, but it may not be such a long wait.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Some people can still change their mind

Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine takes a look at the decline of swing voting as the parties have become polarized: "Politics in a Country Where Nobody Changes Their Mind." Excerpt:
The sorting of American politics into semipermanent, warring camps unfolded over decades. But the red-blue map that first came into public consciousness during the 2000 election created a searing impression of a cultural divide between a Democratic Party rooted in the coasts and upper Midwest and a Republican Party dominating the old Confederacy, Appalachia, and the Mountain West. Smidt points out that the jarring events of George W. Bush’s first term — a recession, a terrorist attack, a war in Iraq — failed to dislodge the hardening partisan loyalties. “After having gone through a recession and a war,” he writes, “pure independents were more stable in their party support across 2000–04 than strong partisans were across 1972–76 and about as stable as strong partisans across 1956–60.” The partisan voter of a generation ago switched parties more frequently than today’s independent voter.
He closes with:
Eventually something will happen to break up the current arrangement. Maybe Republicans will one day move to the center, or left-wing activists will push Democrats out of it. (Right now the latter seems more likely than the former.) For the time being, the dominant fact of American politics is that nobody is changing their mind about anything.
Me: I think the situation is less stable than all that. Consider the polling results reported here:

"Many Conservative Republicans Believe Climate Change Is a Real Threat." Excerpts:
A majority of Republicans — including 54 percent of self-described conservative Republicans — believe the world’s climate is changing and that mankind plays some role in the change, according to a new survey conducted by three prominent Republican pollsters.
On the campaign trail, the leading Republican presidential contenders question or deny human-caused climate change. In an interview on CNN last week, Donald J. Trump said, “I don’t believe in climate change.” In an interview with The San Francisco Chronicle this month, Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who, along with Mr. Trump, is at the top of many recent polls said, “There is no overwhelming science that the things that are going on are man-caused and not naturally caused.” 
While such statements sit well with many conservative activists, the new survey found that 73 percent of all voters and 56 percent of Republicans do believe the climate is changing. Fewer than a third of Republicans think the climate is changing because of purely natural cycles, and only 9 percent think the climate is not changing at all, the survey found. It also found that 72 percent of Republicans support accelerating the development of renewable energy sources.
Me: Climate is an issue where I am particularly at odds with most of the politicians and pundits of what has been my party. Like George Shultz, I favor a carbon fee and dividend system such as proposed by the Citizens Climate Lobby (and I watched Shultz being dismissed, ludicrously, for left-wing thinking by Rubio and Christie at a recent debate). But that's the not the only issue where I've veered -- or in some cases stayed more or less where I was and watched the GOP veer away from me. In either case, somebody has changed their mind, and maybe that can happen again.

I suspect Mitt Romney lost partly because Hurricane Sandy provided such a vivid reminder shortly before the election of what will become increasingly likely as climate is disrupted. Reality has a way of intruding on people who have walled themselves off from it, and some of those people might become swing voters, since neither party is immune to insularity's temptation 100% of the time.

UPDATE: Marco Rubio apparently bases his opposition to carbon taxes on an assumption of U.S. weakness.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

What weather satellites?

John Kasich wants to eliminate the Commerce Department, a position that has some merit provided you know what it does and what functions need to be transferred elsewhere -- and, I'm pleased to report, Kasich's proposal does include such details.

From Bloomberg Politics:
Republican John Kasich would eliminate the U.S. Commerce Department and its White House cabinet post if he were elected president, calling the agency a “cluttered attic.”
Kasich would transfer many of the department’s duties to other agencies, according to a proposal released by his campaign. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which accounts for about half the department’s budget and includes the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center, would move to the Department of Interior.
Compare and contrast with "Ron Paul's Spaced Out Plan" as I called it last time around, and Rand Paul's similar cluelessness. If either Paul knows that department runs weather satellites, they've kept it close to the vest.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Space retirement

My latest at Research magazine: "Space Travel, Robots and Your Clients’ Retirement." Excerpt:
Consider the scenario below. Though it reads like science fiction, it is from a serious-minded report, with the sober title “Commercial Space Transportation Study,” that was presented to NASA by a consortium of aerospace companies in 1994 to assess various potential uses of space. One possibility raised was retirement in orbit: 
“For long-term residences in space, the elderly may be some of the people who could benefit from living in reduced gravity conditions … Without the heavy weight of gravity pulling down on them, elderly people may find themselves far more self-sufficient than they were on Earth. If they were only able to get around a little in their room and dress themselves while on the ground, they may find that they are able to get around enough to completely take care of cleaning, cooking, or other chores. In some cases, they may want to perform some type of job. It is possible that very little staff would be required to maintain a retirement center in space because the tenants could care for themselves.”
Hasn't worked out that way. Whole thing here.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A few links of interest

Recommended reading: "Is Naomi Klein Right That We Must Choose Between Capitalism and the Climate?" by Jonathan Chait. For background, see my discussion last year of "Climate minus capitalism."

Also recommended: John Horgan's post "When Science Gets Personal," in which he notes that how much he likes people on a personal level is a factor in how receptive he is to their arguments. I don't claim to be immune to that tendency, but I've often felt divergence between agreeing with people and liking them.

And more: David Eagleman's TV series "The Brain." The first two episodes have been excellent. I recall first hearing about Eagleman a few years ago regarding his promotion of "possibilianism," which is an interesting way of thinking about the big questions. Plus, see this (unrelated but intriguing) rant by an anonymous neuroscientist.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Enemies, opponents, Republicans, Democrats

Back in the FrumForum days, I wrote a post: "Conservatives Aren't 'At War' With the Left," in which I made the point, which I still think valid, that it's erroneous and foolish to conflate domestic political opponents with wartime enemies. I'm reminded of it now by this thoughtful post by David French at National Review: "A Lesson for Our Political Aristocrats -- Jim Webb Puts 'Enemies' in Perspective." Excerpt from French:

Then along came Jim Webb:

 His enemy was “The enemy soldier who threw the grenade that wounded me.” That is an enemy.  
The makers of Lipitor, Wall Street bankers, health insurance executives, or people who exercise their First Amendment rights to defend the Second Amendment are not. They may oppose you on policy grounds. They may even try to stop your political career. But they are decidedly not your “enemies.” There are real enemies out there, and it’s startling that — aside from Hillary’s offhand reference to the “Iranians” in addition to “the Republicans,” “the NRA,” the “health insurance companies,” and “the drug companies” — none of the other candidates could reach outside of their narrow political experience to name even one.
Me: I agree, and am impressed by French's subsequent admission:
But lest anyone think I’m a self-righteous scold, I’ve got a confession to make. One of the worst things I’ve ever said was not dissimilar from Hillary’s response last night. In 2007, shortly before I deployed to Iraq, I was asked at a conservative event why I had decided to join the Army reserve at the same time that I continued my First Amendment litigation practice (mainly focused on college campuses). My response? “Because I think the two greatest threats to the U.S. are Islamic jihadists and the radical university Left, and I feel I should fight both.” 
That statement was horrible — spoken out of stupidity, foolishness, and ignorance. I hadn’t yet seen jihad with my own eyes, and when I did I felt deep shame that I’d linked my ideological opponents in any way to evil, murderous savages. So I vowed going forward that in my constitutional litigation and in my conservative writings, I would reaffirm my commitment to attack ideas, not individuals, and to never treat my fellow citizens as enemies — no matter how they treated me. Simply put, I needed to grow up, to get outside the polarizing bubble of my own ideological battles. Jim Webb did that long ago. He understands what true “enemies” can do their fellow man. His colleagues, sadly, do not. 
Me: It's all too rare these days to hear a pundit admit he was wrong, went too far, "needed to grow up."

As for the debate, I agree with the media consensus that Clinton was the winner as far as the Democratic nomination goes; the others did not make a case likely to persuade anyone who didn't yet agree as to why they should be the nominee, not her. If by some bizarre historical twist, Webb were the Democratic nominee, I would readily prefer him over the vast majority (and perhaps all) of this year's Republican hopefuls; and some of those hopefuls are sufficiently bad, that voting for Clinton over them is what I would do if it came to that (and I speak as someone who has been a Republican since 1983 and has never voted for a Democrat for president).

The GOP in recent years, and indeed days, has given me plenty of reason to continue feeling disaffected from my party. I even recently considered starting a new blog (working title: "The Fiery RINO") to comment on this election cycle from that disaffected-GOPer perspective. I've avoided doing that, on the grounds that I can't rationalize the expenditure of time. Yet.

Still, the Democratic debate, including the moment cited above, gave ample reminder of why being a fed-up RINO has not made me into a Democrat, or even an ex-Republican. Note to Hillary Clinton: Regardless of your noxious statement, and many flaws, you are not my enemy.

UPDATE 10/15: A powerful op-ed by Jim Webb the younger: "People are criticizing my dad, Jim Webb, for killing a man. Here’s what they’re missing." Excerpt:
This country has been at war for almost 15 years, and as I think about the ridicule leveled at my father in the past 24 hours, I can’t help but imagine what these same people must think about the service of my own generation. In their eyes, did we simply spend some kind of twisted ‘semester abroad’ in a place with plenty of sand, but no ocean? Or conversely, do they ignorantly dismiss our experiences, as they have my father, as those of cold callous killers?
UPDATE: "Jim Webb Just Dropped Out of the Democratic Race and Feels Great About It."

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Book note: A Numerate Life

I read an advance copy of this: A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours, by John Allen Paulos. It's an eclectic book, mixing math, autobiography and reflections on memory, storytelling and more.

One intriguing section explains why "Despite Normal Appearances, We're All Strange" by imagining a higher-dimensional hypercube in which people's preferences on various matters are charted. The result:
...if each of us has a score along each of the very many dimensions in a hypercube, then almost all of us will find ourselves to be a point along the edges of the hypercube; that is an extreme, abnormal point. Nobody except the hopelessly boring and banal live in the moderate, normal interior of the human hypercube.
Me: I'd be interested in constructing such a hypercube based on stated positions of the Republican candidates. Perhaps the upshot would be that George Pataki is "edgy" and could win. In any case, no one will accuse this book of being banal or normal, and I think it offers much of interest accordingly.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Book watch: Latchkey Murders, Mess

I attended a book party yesterday of my longtime friend Alexei Bayer (who's also a longtime columnist for my employer Research magazine). His new book is The Latchkey Murders, and it's the second in a series about a detective in the 1960s USSR. Alex's columns for the financial industry are here.

While at the party, I had the pleasure of meeting Barry Yourgrau, author of Mess: One Man's Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act, and had a very interesting conversation about cluttering and decluttering. That's a subject that in one way or another touches the lives of many people. Barry and his book were recently written up in the NY Times: "A Hoarder's Tale of Redemption," and here's a column of his: "Clutter vs Hoarding vs Collecting."

Climate and blogging hiatuses

There's been something of a hiatus of blogging here, but this is worth a look (click to enlarge):

From The Economist's "leader" (what we call "editorial"):
The world is already 0.75°C warmer than before the Industrial Revolution. A recent study published in Science suggests that a much-debated hiatus in global warming between 1998 and 2012 in fact never happened: the cooler readings were caused by a switch to measuring ocean temperatures from buoys rather than ships. Another study, published in Climatic Change, another journal, finds that the statistical tools used to demonstrate the apparent slowdown were not up to the task. And though the science linking weather events to long-term climate change is still tentative, some researchers see the effects of climate change in the fact that July 2015 was the warmest month globally since records began. The year is likely to break records, too. This summer 47,000 people went to hospital after unusually hot days in Japan, and more than 1,000 died in both Pakistan and India during heatwaves.
Me: I'll be back blogging on climate and more in due course. UPDATE: Like many other people, my veering away from blogging has been driven to some degree by the ease of "microblogging" such as Twitter. If interested, see my Twitter feed to the right, or here.

UPDATE: Recommended reading: "Climate Change: Facts Versus Opinions," by John Horgan.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Logic class

The next online course I'm planning to take: "Introduction to Logic."
In this course, you will learn how to formalize information and reason systematically to produce logical conclusions. We will also examine logic technology and its applications - in mathematics, science, engineering, business, law, and so forth.
Join me if you're interested. Notes on a previous MOOC experience here and here.

UPDATE 12-11-2015: I didn't do most of this course, mainly because I lacked the time (though as a secondary reason, I didn't particularly like the system where you fiddle with your answer till you get it right; such instant feedback supposedly has some pedagogical benefits but I prefer taking a weekly test, getting your grades, and then trying to do better next time as needed). By the way, I am planning to take another, relatively brief, course early next year, on prime numbers.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Skills for competing with robots

My latest at Research magazine is on robots, jobs, Wall Street and studying math online: "Will Robo-Advisors Be Good at Relationships?" Excerpt:
For advisors eager to understand what it takes to be competitive in the advice business (and other fields) as computers take on a growing array of tasks, I recommend a new book: "Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will," by Geoff Colvin, senior editor at large of Fortune magazine (the book is published under the imprint Portfolio/Penguin).
The skills that will be valued in the workplace increasingly will be those of human interaction, in Colvin's view — abilities to work in teams and to understand what other people are thinking and feeling. “Being a great performer is becoming less about what you know and more about what you’re like,” he writes.
Another excerpt:
An experience of mine early this year provided some insight into just how entwined personal and technical skills can be. I was taking a popular online course titled “Introduction to Mathematical Thinking,” taught by Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin. My fellow students numbered in the tens of thousands worldwide. The course's goal was to give a sense of how mathematicians think and work. 
While math might seem to epitomize a technical subject, interpersonal skills were crucial. The professor encouraged students to form and join study groups, which met online or off. The coursework put considerable focus on writing proofs and evaluating proofs written by other students — exercises in communication as well as analysis. 
I have taken some other math courses online that did not involve anything like the same degree of personal interaction, and I learned less in them.
Whole thing here.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A brief word about Donald Trump

I'm going to have to break this promise.

He's clearly more important than I gave him credit for. Read this David Weigel piece, which gives some indication of how he manages to appeal to people, beyond just by being flamboyant and obnoxious. Read also this exchange with Maureen Dowd, in which his answers overall seem sensible to me.

Will I vote for Trump? Not a chance. His egomania and abrasiveness, cynical populism, lack of governing experience and vagueness about what he wants to do, along with the handful of policy-related ideas he has stated, disqualify him by my lights. And I speak as someone who's found him interesting and even somewhat sympathetic for a long time. I recall reading Jerome Tucille's biography of him some four* decades ago (!). 

Do I think Trump has any chance of winning the GOP nomination? Yes, though I would certainly bet against it. Do I think he has any chance of winning the presidency? A slim one, but not negligible. If he won the nomination, his credibility by that point would be considerable; and it's not as if the Democrats have a frontrunner currently whose viability looks to be assured going forward. But the likelihood that Trump would lose in a general election has sparked some genuine agonizing on the right, and it's kind of funny to watch conservative pundits suddenly embrace the pragmatic electability criteria they spent the past couple of cycles disparaging.

Then again, here's a point Trump made that I find hard to argue with:

My own preferred candidate is John Kasich, though I was disappointed with his recent comment about anthropogenic climate change being "some theory that's not proven." My ideal, but sadly nonexistent, candidate would say something like the carbon tax speech I wrote for FrumForum years ago, made even better with some material about taxing non-carbon-priced goods at the border. Trump could give a speech like that, if he weren't on record with this truly stupid statement:

Anyway, that will do for now. It's a long way till November 2016.


* - Actually three decades ago.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Book note: Humans Are Underrated

Current reading: Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will, by Geoff Colvin. Likely to be discussed in an upcoming column of mine.

Posting will continue to be light in the near term, though I expect that as political season kicks into gear, I'll be wanting to say some things about that here at Quicksilber.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Summer slowdown

Posting will continue to be light. I've been busy at work and making some progress on the book. Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Math novel: The Parrot's Theorem

Current reading: The Parrot's Theorem: A Novel, by the late Dennis Guedj. It's about what happens when a family in France receives a library of math books from the Amazon*, and also finds a parrot able to communicate sophisticated concepts. It contains more diagrams and equations than most novels, which is a big plus.

Meanwhile, I'm continuing the MOOC "Paradox and Infinity," which this week is on "Orderings and the Higher Infinite." The course is interesting and sometimes harder to follow (as this week) than other times. Where's that parrot when you need him?

* - the rainforest, not the company.