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.

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.

Monday, June 29, 2015

College major advice

My latest at Research magazine: "Which College Majors Are Solid Investments?" With some ideas relevant to the target readership (financial advisors) and others, including journalists and the occasional Secretary of Defense. Excerpt:

What was your major in college? Ask that question and you’re likely to find out something interesting about a person—regarding their areas of interest, habits of thought, and past or present ambitions. 
Often a major matters greatly in determining a career path, and not necessarily in a predictable way. Consider Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. He has written of how, as a Yale undergrad, he took a double major in the disconnected subjects of physics and medieval history. Their appeal lay in being so different. Moreover, in his words: 
“As far as course choice was concerned, I had no interest in between the extremes of medieval history (history, language, philosophy) on the one hand, and science (physics, chemistry, mathematics) on the other…. I have taken exactly zero social science courses in my entire life. My arrogant view at the time was that life would eventually teach me political science, sociology, psychology, and even economics, but it would never teach me linear algebra or Latin. It seemed best to get my tuition's worth from the other topics and get my social science for free!”
Whole thing here.

My own majors at NYU were economics and history, which both have served me reasonably well and been frequent subjects of my writing. Still, if I were doing things over, I would have a different mix with significantly more math and science than I was willing to try back then.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Supersymmetry novel

Current reading: an advance copy of Supersymmetry, a sci-fi novel by engineer David Walton, which is about what it's like to fend off a quantum mechanical creature even while you yourself have split into multiple people because of a quantum superposition. I'm finding it quite interesting.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The feds vs Reason

I've written for Reason magazine, and had my disagreements with Reason magazine. I retain considerable sympathy for the magazine's philosophy, but even if I didn't, I would be appalled by the federal government's actions in response to some obnoxious comments by readers at the magazine's website. Read the story by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch: "How Government Stifled Reason's Free Speech."

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Review: How to Raise a Wild Child

In Scientific American Mind, I review How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature, by Scott Sampson. My review is here. Excerpt:

Many preschoolers and their parents know paleontologist Sampson as “Dr. Scott” on the television program Dinosaur Train, where he adds science commentary to the show's animated dino tales and closes each episode with this exhortation: “Get outside, get into nature and make your own discoveries.” 
In How to Raise a Wild Child, Sampson provides a persuasive book-length exposition of that tagline. He makes a cogent case for the importance of cultivating a “nature connection” in children and offers thoughtful guidance on how to do so amid today's pressures of hectic, high-tech, increasingly urbanized life.

Side note: It so happens Dr. Scott was nice enough to respond to an email we sent a few years ago clarifying the pronunciation of parasaurolophus (it's done both ways; he prefers para-sore-all-o-fus).

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Excellent advice from Matt Lewis (click to enlarge):

From: "Conservative journalists should get out of the ghetto."

By the way, I'll have some advice of my own for aspiring journalists (regardless of ideology) in an upcoming column.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Shifting tides on starboard side

In 2008, when this blog was young, I expressed skepticism about a suggestion from Arnold Kling that libertarians should engage in civil disobedience against regulations they don't like. Lately, I've become aware that the same basic idea now appears in book form, in Charles Murray's By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission, which I have not read. What I suspect has changed since 2008 is that the "extremism is no vice" strain of libertarianism/conservatism is less prominent now. As one data point on that score, here's none other than Arnold Kling expressing some doubt about such civil disobedience; excerpt from Kling:
How will the other side respond? I could see progressives engaging in civil disobedience, also. In fact, if conservatives were to win in 2016, I expect to see the emergence of a very large, and possibly violent, protest movement. If conservatives/libertarians were to set a precedent of disobeying laws, then I think this would encourage progressives to disobey laws. For example, they might decide that laws protecting property rights are unjust, and proceed to “liberate” the possessions and homes of the one percent.
Me: I doubt much will come of (what's now) Murray's idea. If we do see large numbers of people lying in the streets to protest OSHA or EPA regulations, I would wonder whether there's that much grassroots interest--or if someone is paying for the protestors to show up. As another data point about the moderating tenor of the right, I note these polling results, and especially (click to enlarge):

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Next MOOC: Paradox and Infinity

UPDATE 6/8: The course is about to start. Sign up here if interested (it's free to audit, as I'm doing), and if you're taking it, feel free to be in touch.

This course looks promising: "Paradox and Infinity," at EdX, by MIT philosopher Agustín Rayo, and I'm planning to take it as the next step in my online math education. It looks like it will be lively and interesting, for instance based on this earlier clip of some of the material, and I've gotten some assurance from course staff that there will be opportunity to build math skills.


I'm also, when I have a chance, going through the self-paced Calculus One at Coursera, taught by mathematician Jim Fowler of Ohio State University. That's a subject I studied long ago and never really understood. Down the road, I expect to take courses in statistics, probability and more; as an economics major, I learned some statistics, but that was never a strong point of mine either. Given the general level of mathematical interest and knowledge among journalists, I'm hoping to be an outlier.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

X+Y → A Brilliant Young Mind

This movie looks promising. Released in the UK as "X+Y," it's coming out here, at an unspecified date, as "A Brilliant Young Mind." Here's a scene I like.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Rejuvenated brain considerations

Here's an interesting story: "Neurobiologists restore youthful vigor to adult brains." In mice, that is. Excerpt:
UC Irvine neurobiologist Sunil Gandhi and colleagues wanted to know whether the flexibility of the juvenile brain could be restored to the adult brain. Apparently, it can: They've successfully re-created a critical juvenile period in the brains of adult mice. In other words, the researchers have reactivated brain plasticity—the rapid and robust changes in neural pathways and synapses as a result of learning and experience.
And in doing so, they've cleared a trail for further study that may lead to new treatments for developmental brain disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. Results of their study appear online in Neuron.
Me: Without meaning to dismiss the various good things that may come from developments such as this becoming applicable to humans, I think they might also lead to some perverse incentives, eg: "Why should I study this now rather than leave it for my midlife brain rejuvenation?" In my own math studies that I've described recently, I've been surprised by how some concepts that would have or did baffle my 19 year old self (e.g. in real analysis) make more sense now that I actually am interested in them. A key challenge as neurobiological tinkering becomes more doable and mainstream will be resisting the temptation to use it as a substitute for motivation and diligence.

UPDATE 5/19: Recommended reading: Daniel Klein (worried) and David Henderson (more upbeat) on designer babies. I lean toward Klein's outlook. Via Walter Olson.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Leftists beyond orbit

I've seen hints over the years that someday anti-space exploration would become a driving force on the left, for example long ago when I reported on the anti-Cassini movement. Well, maybe the day has come. Here's Rand Simberg, writing in PJ Media: "Social Justice Warriors Make Their Claim on Space." Excerpt:
People are starting to take the notion of large-scale habitation of space seriously, and some of the Social Justice Warriors, fresh from their recent bloodying with GamerGate and the Hugos, seem to be switching their sights to a new target. A few weeks ago, Elon Musk, Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson had a conversation about (among other things) the importance of becoming a multi-planet species (one of Musk’s driving concerns, and the reason he started his company SpaceX). 
Well, D. N. Lee, a biology blogger at Scientific American, found the discussion “beyond problematic” (one of the SJWs’ favorite words)...
Rand goes on to discuss a Guardian piece that focused on literal off-planet rape. Rand's conclusion:
There is a moral case to be made for settling space by humanity, warts and all, and we have to be prepared to make it.
Me: I agree, and count me in on the pro-space side. What I wonder, though, is how the political sides will line up over time. Will the liberal space enthusiasts at places like Scientific American defend exploration and (gasp) colonization against the hard left? Or will the hard left manage to intimidate a substantial portion of the political spectrum into at least falling silent amid attacks on "White Colonialism Interstellar Manifest Destiny Bullshit"? Interesting times.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Review: Birth of a Theorem

I almost did not bother to read most of Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure, by Cédric Villani. After reading several chapters, it was clear that I wasn't going to understand the mathematics in this book, and via Twitter I came across some negative reviews that emphasized the book's inclusion of incomprehensible material. Moreover, in keeping with my recent hobby of studying math, I've been very much in the mode of wanting to actually do math, rather than just observe it in some vague way. But I plowed ahead with Villani's book, and I am certainly glad I did.

Birth of a Theorem gives a compelling and personal picture of what it is like to do math at an extremely high level; for example, to think you've solved a longstanding problem and then find that you haven't, or to wake up with a momentous realization that "You've got to bring over the second term from the other side, take the Fourier transform, and invert in L2"--and then write a note on a scrap of paper before rushing to get the kids dressed and onto the school bus.

Some pages of the book are laden with equations, and a note on translation at the end states: "No attempt has been made to expand upon, much less to explain, fine points of mathematical detail, many of which will be unfamiliar even to professional mathematicians. The technical material, though not actually irrelevant, is in any case inessential to the story Cédric Villani tells in this book."

I would have preferred it if, at some point, there had been a diagram with annotations summarizing, term by term, what a key equation means. As it was, though, I had some fun picking out the symbols I did understand--an ∈ here, an ∀ there, a sup somewhere (all of which I learned fairly recently), and I agree that this book tells a valuable story even while displaying so much unexplained math. The only pages that I didn't find interesting were ones devoted to a long listing of musicians and bands the author likes. (Some readers may like this part, however, especially if they were attracted to the book by Patti Smith's blurb on the back cover.)

So, Birth of a Theorem is recommended. It is a very different offering from Edward Frenkel's Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, which strives to make some very difficult math comprehensible to a lay audience. Still, I suspect that some people will pick up Villani's book and end up being drawn further into mathematics, as well.