Tuesday, January 20, 2015

How I became interested in math decades after studying it

I've recently taken a strong interest in math, a subject in which I was not a particularly distinguished student decades ago. Math is highly relevant to many economic and science topics I've covered as a journalist; and has become a growing political issue involving how it should be taught (or in some misguided arguments, whether it's really much needed); and it's a personal issue for those of us with school-age children. I've come to a growing sense of all of that, as well as of what a fascinating, fast-changing, extensive, profound and, I think, socially under-appreciated field math is in itself.

A key factor in inspiring this outlook was an excellent book I recently read, Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, by Edward Frenkel. I've been in touch with Frenkel and hope to write about his views soon in a professional capacity. Another factor was reading the Simons Foundation's magazine Quanta, which provides much absorbing coverage of math and its diverse intersections with science.

Moreover, we live in the time of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. I've now taken Jo Boaler's online course "How to Learn Math: For Students," which I found interesting and helpful, and have signed up for Keith Devlin's "Introduction to Mathematical Thinking." While I surely will not be making a mid-career shift to mathematician, I do hope to become progressively better at thinking and writing about topics in and around math. I have nothing to lose except the sour and befuddled feeling that I took away from calculus long ago.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Winter 2015

This is and will be a busy winter, with current projects including writing a book review involving nature and childhood, taking an online math-related course at Stanford, keeping up my column and editorial duties at Research magazine, and importantly, writing my Erie Canal/DeWitt Clinton book. Posting at this blog is going to be sporadic for some time to come. Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Quantum computers in finance

My January column for Research magazine looks at the implications for financial advisors of a futuristic technology. Excerpt:
Quantum physics, or quantum mechanics, is a scientific field focused on the behavior of subatomic particles. It is notoriously arcane, using math to describe phenomena that run counter to common-sense assumptions. Particles, for instance, can exist in a state of “superposition,” where such properties as location or speed are defined by a probability distribution rather than a single, definite number.
To illustrate that point, much popular-level writing about quantum mechanics has invoked “Schrödinger's cat,” an imaginary scenario (discussed by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in the 1930s) in which a cat in a box supposedly can be both dead and alive, since its fate was determined by a particle process that yielded only probabilities.
Contrary to the impression one might get from reading some popular treatments, however, most physicists are not inclined to believe in dead-and-alive cats. Rather, they see superposition as a delicate state that is difficult to maintain in systems involving numerous particles (and effectively impossible in a large, active object such as a cat).
Such matters might seem far removed from the everyday concerns of financial advisors. But actually, quantum mechanics may end up being a subject of pressing importance in the advice industry. Whether that is the case depends on what happens with quantum computing, a technology that is now in its infancy but which—if its proponents’ ambitious visions are on target—could reshape finance and much else.
Read the full article: "Can Advisors Handle Quantum Computers?"

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Controversial messages to aliens

There's a discussion about seeking and contacting extraterrestrial intelligence this month at Cato Unbound: "Politics, Social Theory, and SETI." It includes some effort to connect the topic to libertarianism, this being a venue of the Cato Institute, but the main focus is on whether "active SETI" or "METI" (often called Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is a good idea, with the balance of opinion so far being 'no' and Robin Hanson even throwing in a suggestion that we scale back radio astronomy as an activity that might send a relatively easily detectable message out inadvertently. David Brin's lead essay has a lot of interesting angles, though I'd tinker with his description of the math (the left side of the Drake equation is N).

I've long been interested in this overall subject, as with this review (which originally was planned for Reason but perhaps didn't have enough of a libertarian angle for them). I'm no enthusiast of METI, which strikes me as having less upside than downside; I would prefer that such activity be delayed until some time when we know more about what might be out there (but what that knowledge might consist of and how much of it we need is hard to say). Still, restricting METI, let alone radio astronomy that might reveal our presence, requires some very murky risk assessment. For all we know, it's only if aliens do know we're here that they won't use this solar system for some sterilizing experiment or such. If, notionally, the risk of extermination by aliens who pick up our signals is anywhere near one in a billion, then unlike Hanson I'd be happy to shrug off that risk.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Let us praise io9

Lest I appear, based on the entry below, to have given up on any hope for journalism's future, let me say a positive word for io9, which has impressed me not only with a good deal of its science and sci-fi coverage (and ability to straddle that line) but also with how it's largely avoided the sleaze and obnoxiousness that generally characterizes the rest of the Gawker empire. I'm impressed in particular right now by Annalee Newitz's apology and fix for running a one-sided piece about lab animals.

UPDATE: I should mention I came across above topic via Walter Olson.

TNR RIP [updated]

Opinion journalism is not what it used to be, and if I'd known what it was going to become, I would have been a great deal less inclined to become involved in it a couple of decades ago. I spent a lot of time reading The New Republic in the nineties, and while I was overall to the right of the magazine, what I read there definitely taught and influenced me in various ways. Admittedly, I found it less interesting in more recent years, but its prospective new incarnation sounds like a true descent into journalistic and business hell. A few recommended readings:

"Is There a Peter Principle for Investors?" by Dan Drezner, Washington Post.

"A Eulogy for The New Republic" by Jonathan Chait, New York magazine.

"The incredible imploding New Republic," by Kirsten Browning, Muck Rack.

"New Republic Staffers Resign En Masse," by Dylan Byers, Politico.


I'm also pretty amused by the seemingly upbeat tone of this tweet by an NPR reporter doing an early relay of the news; "punches the accelerator" indeed:
And as for Guy Vidra, the new guy in charge there who reportedly aspired to be a "wartime CEO," he seems to have gotten his wish.

UPDATE 2: Andrew Sullivan has a post that happens to have the same headline as mine.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Slowdown and baseball balloon

Quicksilber began in Dec. 2007 and has had some periods of fairly high activity and others of relative dormancy. I expect Dec. 2014 will not be a particularly active time on this blog. Meanwhile, work continues on my book, I continue to do a column at Research magazine, my Twitter feed is here, and my LinkedIn profile is here. Below is a giant baseball, inflated before Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Odds and ends: science, nukes, immigration

An informative and balanced post at Sciam: "New GOP Leaders Embrace Science but Don’t Hug Trees," about the implications of Tom Cole and John Culberson's appointments to science-relevant subcommittees. I'm pleased to learn the implications include brighter prospects for a Europa mission. I wrote about Europa some years ago for Sciam, and the ambitious plans I discussed then did not have much political staying power.

On a different topic: "China Going Nuclear." Excerpt: "China’s military capabilities are improving at such a clip that the entire western United States will be vulnerable to a Chinese nuclear attack within ten years, according to a new report." This surprises me, but what surprises me about it is I'd assumed it had happened long ago. Meanwhile, the U.S. is having its own nuclear arsenal problems, as discussed in this Bloomberg View editorial, though I don't see that what's discussed there impels the conclusion that the U.S. should downsize its arsenal.

And on immigration, I think Walter Russell Mead makes many good points here: "Obama's Big Miscalculation." To wit: the policy is debatable, the politics are bad.

In any case, we need more of this kind of immigrant (and I'm not making any ethnic point; I'm saying people this smart): "A Grand Vision for the Impossible."

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Multiverse-canal connection

Here's a place where old canal history intersects with cutting-edge physics. From an article at Quanta: "Multiverse Collisions May Dot the Sky," by Jennifer Ouellette*:
In August 1834, a Scottish engineer named John Scott Russell was conducting experiments along Union Canal with an eye toward improving the efficiency of the canal boats. One boat being drawn by a team of horses stopped suddenly, and Russell noted a solitary wave in the water that kept rolling forward at a constant speed without losing its shape. The behavior was unlike typical waves, which tend to flatten out or rise to a peak and topple quickly. Intrigued, Russell tracked the wave on horseback for a couple of miles before it finally dissipated in the channel waters. This was the first recorded observation of a soliton. 
Russell was so intrigued by the indomitable wave that he built a 30-foot wave tank in his garden to further study the phenomenon, noting key characteristics of what he called “the wave of translation.” Such a wave could maintain size, shape and speed over longer distances than usual. The speed depended on the wave’s size, and the width depended on the depth of the water. And if a large solitary wave overtook a smaller one, the larger, faster wave would just pass right through. 
Russell’s observations were largely dismissed by his peers because his findings seemed to contradict what was known about water wave physics at the time. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that such waves were dubbed solitons and physicists realized their usefulness in modeling problems in diverse areas such as fiber optics, biological proteins and DNA. Solitons also turn up in certain configurations of quantum field theory. Poke a quantum field and you will create an oscillation that usually dissipates outward, but configure things in just the right way and that oscillation will maintain its shape — just like Russell’s wave of translation. 
Because solitons are so stable, Lim believes they could work as a simplified toy model for the dynamics of bubble collisions in the multiverse, providing physicists with better predictions of what kinds of signatures might show up in the CMB. If his hunch is right, the expanding walls of our bubble universe are much like solitons.
Me: I've long been attuned to odd connections between seemingly unrelated topics, but this one really stretches far. I'm impressed.

* - Fixed my misspelling of the author's name.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

U.S.-China climate … thing

A lot of our political discourse seems to be people playing their predictable roles without expending much thought. The debate about the U.S.-China climate announcement is a case in point. Democrats are hyping it. Republicans are denouncing it (seeing it as part of a "war on coal."). Neither side has much incentive to notice the considerable limitations on its significance; which are, however, sketched out in a post by Jack Goldsmith, a law professor. Excerpt (with emphases from original):
Here the two sides do not promise to, or state that they will, reduce emissions by a certain amount. Rather, they state only that they intend to achieve emissions reductions and to make best efforts in so doing. Whether and how the goals expressed in these intentions will be reached is left unaddressed, and one nation’s intention is not in any way tied to the other’s. Nor would it be a violation of the “announcement” if either side’s best efforts fail to achieve the intended targets. As we have seen with a lot with climate change aspirations, intentions are easy to state, and they change over time. The key point is that this document in no way locks in the current intentions. In fact it creates no obligations whatsoever, not even soft ones (except that, in a different place, both sides “commit” to “reaching an ambitious … agreement” next year, an empty commitment). It is no accident that the document is called an “announcement” and not a treaty or pledge or even an agreement.
Me: I've long thought some kind of U.S.-China arrangement could be important, given the centrality of those two nations to carbon emissions and international trade, and given how hard it is to get any kind of multilateral agreement. But still, what's been achieved here is nothing remotely like, say, a bilateral agreement to put a price on carbon emissions (not surprisingly, as something like that would require legislation on the U.S. side, however much it might be imposed by fiat in China). The back-and-forth over this deal (which Goldsmith plausibly puts in quotes: "deal") is more about people displaying their ideological identities than anyone actually having much reason to exult or despair.

UPDATE: A different take, from Christopher Flavelle: "Obama Outmaneuvers Republicans on Climate Change."

UPDATE 2: Tyler Cowen: "The announced deal is little more than a well-timed, well-orchestrated press release."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Climate solutions

"Conservatives don’t hate climate science. They hate the left’s climate solutions," by Chris Mooney. About a new study that gives more evidence of how views on science can change depending on the policy prescriptions offered (and which discusses gun control as well). And all the more reason to expect climate politics in the coming decades to look very different from how it does now. (After much time has been wasted.)

Brad Thor redux

I'm glad to see, in looking at this blog's incoming traffic, that Quicksilber ranks high (#3 currently) in search results for: brad thor conspiracy theorist nutjob. Here's the post that accomplished this: "Fact checking a novel: Brad Thor's Hidden Order." Apparently I'm not a fan.

Posting may continue to be light in near term.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Post-election reading

Recommended reading: "Why the GOP Blowout Is So Scary for Democrats," by Peter Beinart. Short answer: because a more moderate Republican Party is emerging. Excerpt:
...there is one big takeaway from tonight’s Republican landslide that should worry Democrats a lot: The GOP is growing hungrier to win. 
It’s about time. As a general rule, the longer a party goes without holding the White House, the hungrier it becomes. And the hungrier it becomes, the more able it is to discard damaging elements of party orthodoxy while still rousing its political base. Between 1932 and 1952, it took Republicans five election defeats to convince their partisans to rally behind Dwight Eisenhower, who accepted the New Deal. Between 1980 and 1992, it took Democrats three defeats to convince their base to get behind Bill Clinton, a former head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council who supported cutting taxes and executing murderers. 
In 2008 and 2012, Republicans couldn’t pull this off. Party elites backed John McCain and Mitt Romney, both of whom had records of bipartisan achievement and ideological independence that might have made them attractive to swing voters. But McCain and Romney faced so much hostility from the GOP’s conservative base that in order to win the nomination, and then ensure a decent base turnout in November, they had to repudiate the very aspects of their political identity that might have impressed independents. McCain, who had once called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance,” made another such agent, Sarah Palin, his running mate. Romney, who given his druthers would likely have supported comprehensive immigration reform, instead demonized illegal immigrants to curry favor with the GOP base. 
This year has been different: GOP activists have given their candidates more space to craft the centrist personas they need to win.
Me: I hope that's correct. Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Social Security webinar note

Click here for information about a webinar I'm doing Nov. 5 with economist (and onetime presidential hopeful) Laurence Kotlikoff on "How to Work Social Security into Your Clients' Retirement Portfolios." That's in my capacity as senior editor at Research magazine, which is aimed at financial advisors (and which has no responsibility for Quicksilber, my personal blog).

One political note

Lack of time prevents me from spending much time blogging about the midterm elections (or much else) right now, but I will note that the congressional race in my (Republican-leaning) corner of New Jersey appears to be a real contest, with incumbent Republican Scott Garrett running ahead of Democratic challenger Roy Cho but not so much as to be assured of victory. In my area, it's easy to find lawn signs for either candidate, and the Cho campaign has wisely emphasized a message of "Moderate Republicans Support Roy Cho." I wrote about the objectionable Garrett here and here. Go Cho--and if you win, I strongly advise you to live up to those "moderate Republican" signs.

Friday, October 31, 2014

SpaceShipTwo implications

The crash of SpaceShipTwo in a test flight reminds me of these words a few years ago from Paul Spudis:
But what will happen to a commercial space tourism market after the first fatal accident? New Space advocates often tout their indifference to danger, but such bravado is neither a common nor wise attitude in today’s lawsuit-happy society (not to mention, the inevitable loss of confidence from a limited customer base). My opinion is that after the first major accident with loss of life, a nascent space tourism industry will become immersed in an avalanche of litigation and will probably fully or partly collapse under the ensuing financial burden. We are no longer the barnstorming America of the 1920’s and spaceflight is much more difficult than aviation.
Me: And this tragic failure of a suborbital test flight, of course, occurs even before commercial space tourism has really gotten anywhere. That industry has been slower to emerge than many expected a decade ago, and this sure isn't going to speed it up.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Paying for immortality

My latest at Research magazine involves how long people will live in 2030 and how long their money will last. I interview Joel Garreau about his four scenarios for longevity. Excerpt:
Small Change. In this scenario, technological advances have only modestly altered current trends in lifespans and health outcomes. Leading-edge baby boomers alive in 2030 are octogenarians and often infirm. Their kids who are in their 40s can expect to live into their 80s but face a familiar decades-long decline in health. Medical costs continue to skyrocket. According to Garreau, this is “the official Washington future regarding aging—the one many policymakers expect.” 
Drooling on Their Shoes. In 2030, under this scenario, technological advances have increased lifespans while doing far less to improve health in later life. Octogenarian boomers face decades of frailty and dementia; suicide rates among the aged have jumped. Health care costs are even more burdensome than in Small Change, increasing budget turmoil and intergenerational tension. 
Live Long and Prosper. Information technology has revolutionized health care while reducing its costs, in this 2030 scenario. Octogenarians remain active, thanks partly to what Garreau calls “Google Medicine,” a toaster-sized home appliance that analyzes spit samples to detect health changes. The first person who will live robustly to 150 is entering adulthood. Hospitals have become primarily for the less affluent, and tech-driven obsolescence threatens many health care institutions. 
Immortality. In his last scenario, Garreau raised the possibility of lifespans of indefinite duration. “Immortality is not as crazy as it sounds,” he wrote. Sufficient tech advances could boost life expectancy by one year each year, and “you have something that looks like immortality for some people.” Boomer octogenarians in 2030 have “too many hard miles on their chassis” to fully benefit, but younger people may have trouble imagining the onetime prevalence of sickness and death.
Whole thing here. My review of Garreau's Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human is here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Superintelligence, simulations, etc.

There's an interesting review of Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies at the website of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, by piero scaruffi (whose name appears in lower case). I haven't read Bostrom's book, though I have been keeping tabs on the subject (see here and here) and found scaruffi's skeptical take on the dangers of AI intriguing. I then went to scaruffi's own site, and from now I will no longer worry, as I sometimes have, that my own blog incorporates an unduly broad range of interests; it's nothing compared to scaruffi, and I say that respectfully.

On another Bostrom-related note, I was a bit disappointed by Seth Shostak's piece "Is Life an Illusion?" which is an uncritical take on Bostrom's ideas about living in a simulation. I would've expected Shostak, who's spent decades contemplating probabilities involving alien life, to have something more sophisticated to say about efforts to calculate whether we are characters in a computer game. Years ago, I expressed some reasons for skepticism about that subject, which strike me as still making sense. (I don't, however, claim to be up to date on the technical debate over the simulation argument, and I see that Bostrom in 2011 co-wrote a "patch" for his original case.)

UPDATE: "Elon Musk: Robots Could Delete Humans Like Spam." Strikes me as not a compelling analogy, given how difficult it is to get rid of spam.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Cosmic books

Current reading: The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities, by Caleb Scharf. So far it's quite interesting, and I have high expectations based on Scharf's work that I've read previously.

I also recently ordered and received Lee Billings' Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars, something I ought to have done a year ago and was reminded to do now by Billings' winning of a 2014 AIP Science Communications Award.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Clinton history travels

Here are my son DeWitt and my wife Brooke at Fort Montgomery, in upstate new York, today, watching a reenactment of the battle where their direct ancestor James Clinton and his brother George Clinton fought against their distant relative Henry Clinton. Grant Miller, manager of the Fort Montgomery State Historic Site, is narrating the action.

Fort Montgomery 10-5-14
And back in August we visited the Syracuse area, where I continued my Erie Canal book research. Dan Ward, curator at the Erie Canal Museum, showed us around the museum as well as Camillus Erie Canal Park, which has impressive remnants of Clinton's Ditch as well as the Enlarged Canal. We also made a preliminary visit to the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum.

DeWitt Clinton portrayal at Erie Canal Museum

Sign at Camillus Park
1842 Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct, restored in Camillus Park
Dry dock at Chittenango