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.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Financial history lessons

My latest at Research magazine: I interview historians Richard Sylla and Robert E. Wright about their new book Genealogy of American Finance (Columbia Business School Publishing). Excerpt:

Does the subject of financial history get as much attention as it ought to from financial professionals? How about from the general public?

Wright: Financial professionals, policymakers, and the general public do not pay enough attention to financial historians when times are good. When times are bad, the stock of financial historians does increase but then it is too late to do much good. We were much in demand in 2008–9 as journalists, policymakers, investors, and voters tried to wrap their heads around the financial crisis but it would have been better for everyone if they had paid attention to us in 2002–7! Ken Snowden, for example, had shown that six previous mortgage securitization schemes had blown up between the Civil War and World War II. While his historical analysis did not conclusively “prove” that trouble loomed (the past can never be used to predict the future with certainty because the past rhymes rather than repeats) it should have set off more alarm bells, as it did for our colleague at NYU-Stern (where I taught from 2003–9), Nouriel Roubini, one of the few economists to make accurate predictions of the impending disaster.

Studying financial history, all forms of the past for that matter, can help to create good, old-fashioned judgment, the “soft” skills that help financiers like Henry Kaufman to discern the difference between junk mathematical models and the real deal.

Sylla: Most financial professionals pay too little attention to financial history, which ought to instruct them. In the wake of the recent crisis, a good number of them became more interested in financial history for the perspectives it shed on what had happened, and some even advocated more study of it. The CFA Institute has been studying ways of adding more financial history to its educational programs for finance professionals. But as the crisis fades in memory, finance professionals talk less and less about history's importance. Its cautionary lessons might interfere with taking the next big risk to make the next fast buck. One of the great lessons of financial history is that a lot of finance professionals over the decades and centuries never learn, and so they repeat the mistakes of the past. The general public ought to learn more financial history to protect themselves from short-sighted finance professionals!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Progress report on learning math online [updated and moved to top]

3/25/15: I've been studying math lately, as noted in the post below. I'm now in the 6th week of Prof. Keith Devlin's "Introduction to Mathematical Thinking," which runs either 8 or 10 weeks depending on whether you stop after the Basic Course or continue through the Extended Course. The latter is described in the course description as being particularly difficult:
Students who struggle with the Basic Course are likely to find the additional two weeks of the Extended Course extremely difficult, if not impossible. Note also that the final two weeks of the Extended Course are more intense than the Basic Course, being in part designed to give students a sense of the pace of a university-level course in pure mathematics. Moreover, in Week 10 there is a series of fairly tight deadlines you must meet, with 48 hour turnaround times. [Emphasis in the original.]
Me: We'll see how that goes, as I've been hoping to make it through the Extended Course and get the Statement of Accomplishment With Distinction that comes from passing it. I've found the course highly interesting and will have learned a great deal regardless of how far I get. The overall course emphasizes logic and proofs, and is designed to give a sense of how mathematicians think (in contradistinction to the emphasis on following instructions that characterizes much K-12 math). At times, I have struggled with the concepts, though my weekly test results have been generally decent (with one exception), with scores equivalent to about 87, 87, 41 (oops), 96 (comeback) and 86.

The course is not particularly oriented toward visual thinking, but I have found some visualization helps in grasping the concepts. Here is what I drew and wrote for a homework problem. [Added: SPOILER: Don't read the image first if you want to answer the question yourself.] The question was: "Prove or disprove the claim that there are integers m, n such that m2+mn+n2 is a perfect square." I drew and wrote the below, and posted it to a class discussion board (along with a question as to whether and to what extent "visual proofs" are acceptable):

A fellow student pointed out that my diagram doesn't match the algebraic expression m2+mn+n2, which is true. If I were to do it over, I'd leave one of the mn boxes out or cross-hatch it or something. My basic idea that the claim is verified by making n zero seems to have some merit.

Here is a report from someone who took the same course a couple of years ago. I agree with many of the sentiments expressed, including about finding the course very interesting and enjoyable, and also about this:
Assignments are not submitted for marking (but a helpful feedback video is made available in the next week in which Devlin explains how to answer a selection of the questions). In the first few weeks of the course Devlin puts a very prominent amount of emphasis on the need for all students to discuss the course with others in an informally established study group. In my case I chanced on and joined a Google Group called “Mathematical Thinking UK Discussion Group”. This initially had about 40 members. About seven were helpfully active in the first three weeks, but the study group has seemingly since ceased to function. So I am on my own: it feels a bit late in the day to try to find another study group, nor to attempt to breath life into this one.
Me: That mirrors my experience very closely, as I was part of a weekly Google Hangout study group, which started off very promising and then progressively wound down into nothingness. I gather the dissolution of such groups has a lot to do with people quitting the course (considerably more that, I suspect, than with people finding the course easy and deciding they don't need a study group). The statistics posted by the professor weekly show that, while a large number of people are enrolled (over 38,000, from all over the world), they vary in activity or lack thereof; and those who actually hand in the weekly test, or Problem Set, are a small and declining subgroup (under 1,500 at last count).

In any case, I've become a big fan of online courses, a remarkable and unprecedented resource (and one that for now at least is often free). Edward Frenkel, who did much to inspire my newly heightened interest in math, has an upcoming (and seemingly not too time-consuming) class, which I've signed up for as well. Whatever limits I encounter in my online education, it's clear to me that I've learned much already, and that this has been time well-spent.

The above was originally posted 3/25/15.

UPDATE 4/28/15: I've completed the course, including the extended course, and am now awaiting my Statement of Accomplishment With Distinction, which I believe I earned. Someone pathetically tried to disrupt the peer-review portion of the extended course by placing numerous bogus "zero" reviews, but this was detected and deleted. I am now on to "Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy," which looks to have many fascinating concepts but also be less time-consuming (a good thing, given my schedule, though it also means it will involve less hands-on learning, as this course, unlike the previous one, does not involve handing in weekly problem sets for grading).

UPDATE 5/1/15: My SOA With Distinction. I was one of 275 students to get one of these; another 991 earned an SOA for completion of the Basic Course.

A few additional thoughts before closing this post:

1. "The only way to really learn math is by doing it." This is something one hears now and then, and I can affirm it based on my experience in this course. If I had only listened to the professor's lectures or read his book Introduction to Mathematical Thinkingwithout actually trying to solve the (ungraded) assignments and (graded) problem sets myself, I would not have gotten nearly as much out of this course.
2. "You don't really understand something until you've taught it." Another bit of repeated wisdom that I find has validity. In evaluating other students' work and trying to explain things to them, I found I had to learn the material better than I would have just from handing in my own work.

3. My final grade was 98.5%, which is of course good but needs some context. The numerical grades are described by the professor as "akin to the points awarded in a video game: significant within the game, but only within the game." Under the scoring system, it is possible for students to get more than 100%, which then gets normalized to 100%. My grade was boosted by certain features of the scoring, such as that it includes only your highest score out of three "evaluation exercises" (evaluating proofs and seeing how close your score is to the professor's; I did great on the third one); in general, the grades are a marker of progress and persistence more than performance.

4. A substantial portion of this course is about language and communication; such as in converting between natural language and symbolic logic, and in assessing the clarity of proofs. When I signed up for "Introduction to Mathematical Thinking," I wondered if I might be going too far afield in spending valuable time on something unrelated to my financial journalism day job, Erie Canal book project and overall writing career. I'm pleased to find the course was plenty relevant to writing.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Mini-review: Aferim!

My friend and occasional co-blogger Dan and I went to see this at the Tribeca Film Festival tonight: Aferim!

I can't say I recommend it. It's a story of man's inhumanity to man, presented brutally (especially at the end) but without sufficiently well-drawn characters to create much feeling of connection to them, and paced in a slow manner that sinks into the tedious. I do feel I know something now about Romania in the 1830s, and certainly the film shows some skill and originality. But its main effect, I found, is depressive. The title means "Bravo!" by the way, though this has only tenuous connection to the story.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Silber family history

Recommended reading: "Russian Jews should heed lessons of history," a Jerusalem Post op-ed by my friend Alexei Bayer. Some family history of my own is included in the opening paragraph.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Stop teaching math?

A dreadful article at Bloomberg View: "Want Kids to Learn Math? Stop Teaching It." Via Twitter, I called it to the attention of Edward Frenkel and Keith Devlin, whose reactions were as negative as mine. (The thread is here.) However bad things are in math education currently, one shouldn't underestimate how much worse they could become, and conveying to kids that math beyond some basic arithmetic is something that only a small segment of the population ought to concern itself with is surely a fast track to a dystopia populated primarily by mentally enfeebled Morlocks.

I speak as someone who, even though not exactly lacking intellectual self-confidence growing up, decided too early and too easily that developing mathematical abilities was not where my talents lay. My efforts to rectify that, which I wrote about recently, are ongoing and, oddly enough, fun.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Fact check: Josh Marshall on James Woolsey

Political punditry may not be noted for its high intellectual standards, but you would think a prominent commentator such as Josh Marshall, editor of TalkingPointsMemo, would be able to offer some substantiation for a negative claim he made about a public figure. Here was Marshall on March 26, in his post "The Cruz Troika" about three foreign policy experts that Cruz "trusts most." (What exactly Cruz's relationship with these guys is was left vague.) After writing about Elliot Abrams and John Bolton, Marshall went on to say this about former CIA director James Woolsey:
After the respected neoconservative and the clownish warmonger you have a guy who might simply be certifiable: former CIA Director James Woolsey, perhaps the champion at being the biggest purveyor crap in the lead up to the Iraq War, which is saying something because the competition is intense. He may be the only former high level official still holding on to Saddam Hussein being the mastermind of 9/11.
Me: I was intrigued by that, and wanted to know what exactly Woolsey had said, and when. So I asked Marshall via Twitter.

And he answered:

So I did some searching around, finding that Woolsey had written a foreword to Mylroie's book "Study of Revenge." The foreword is dated 9/27/01, which is a few weeks after 9/11, and in it Woolsey obliquely suggests the possibility that Iraq may have been behind 9/11, noting that this becomes more plausible if "time proves that Laurie Mylroie is right about what happened in 1993" (i.e. that Saddam was behind the first World Trade Center bombing).

Given the foreword's hedged wording and even more so its long-ago timing, it clearly fell far short of substantiating Marshall's claim, so I tweeted him again.

That was four days ago, and I'm still waiting for a reply. Meanwhile, in my searching, I also found that Marshall in 2004 was castigating Woolsey thus:
Amazing. Jim Woolsey is on Lou Dobbs show, as I write. He continues to press the Iraq-al Qaida link, suggests only that it's not clear Saddam 'ordered' the 9/11 attacks (my recollection, I haven't seen the transcript yet), and goes on to accuse Clarke of being crazy or thoroughly lacking in credibility because he accuses Woolsey, Laurie Mylroie and others of saying what they have in fact been saying for years. A through-the-looking-glass performance.
Me: I looked up the transcript and here is the Woolsey interview (click to enlarge):

Me: Notice that this is a few years after Woolsey wrote the foreword to Mylroie's book, and Woolsey is still not saying that Saddam was the mastermind of 9/11. Nothing I have found that is more recent comes any closer to backing Marshall's claim about Woolsey's persistence in his alleged position.

So, as it stands, I have not found substantiation that Woolsey is "still holding on to Saddam Hussein being the mastermind of 9/11" and I have not found that an effort to "look up his work with Laurie Mylroie" leads to such substantiation. If evidence backing Marshall's claim exists, he should produce it. If Marshall can't do so, he should run a correction and apology.

For the record, I have no connection to Woolsey and no firm opinions about him. Also, I don't like Ted Cruz and would want neither him nor Lou Dobbs to be president of the United States.

UPDATE 5/1/15: More than a month later, Marshall has not put forward any substantiation. I'm pleased to see, though, that Googling james woolsey josh marshall gets this result:

Monday, March 2, 2015

How I became interested in math decades after studying it [updated and moved to top]

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.
Originally posted 1/20/15.

UPDATE 3/2/15: My interview with Frenkel, geared for an audience of financial advisors, is in Research magazine: "How Math Will Shape Wall Street's Future."

Also, now that I'm a few weeks into Keith Devlin's "Introduction to Mathematical Thinking" course, I can confirm that it's extremely interesting and will not be the last math MOOC I take.

UPDATE: More on Devlin's course here, and a bad idea noted here.

Friday, February 13, 2015

A snapshot of the left-right fight over science

At The Federalist, David Harsanyi has a list: "Here Are The ‘Science’ Questions Reporters Should Ask Politicians." The piece is in keeping with a theme voiced by many conservatives that the recent questioning of Scott Walker about evolution was tendentious "gotcha" journalism (which it was), and that liberal/progressive journalists and politicians who hector the right about science are often ill-informed about science themselves (which is true).

I've written (a lot) about skewed science on left and right, and concluded provisionally that there's plenty wrong with the left on this score and--at the present time--even more wrong with the right. To glean some of both side's deficiencies, I recommend scrolling through recent tweets by Harsanyi's Federalist colleague Sean M. Davis, who responded to journalists' derision of Walker by pressing them about what they know about punctuated equilibrium and other topics involving evolution. Fair enough--but: Davis's amusing screed also included some statements that are misleading at best:
Me: Macroevolution is commonly defined as evolution at or above the species level, and there is debate about questions such as whether the mechanisms of microevolution (change within species) are sufficient by themselves to account for change of one species to another, and the relative importance of the mechanisms. Complicated, certainly. Controversial? Only if one means the details of how macroevolution happens. That it happens--more specifically, that  new species arise from earlier ones-- is not controversial within the scientific community. At all. Davis's implication that there is some raging scientific debate about the existence of speciation is false. Plus, using the distinction between micro- and macroevolution spuriously is a tactic from the creationist playbook.

Me:  I never went to j-school, but I have written about both the multiverse and evolution on many occasions. And to the best of my knowledge, Davis's claim here, that multiverse theories developed because of problems with Darwinian gradualism, is false. I say "to the best of my knowledge" because there's no way to rule out that some scientist somewhere may have thought along such lines, but if so that certainly was not typical of how ideas about the multiverse arose.

In saying this, let me make clear that I think one motivation--among others--for receptiveness to the multiverse (the idea that there are many universes) was to bat away a particular strand of thinking that the laws of physics give evidence of an intelligent "fine tuning." There were other and I suspect more important motivations, particularly that theories of cosmic inflation (and also cosmological natural selection) inherently imply that the creation of new universes would happen more than once; there's no clear reason why the needed conditions wouldn't happen again and again.

But even agreeing (as I do) that some scientists like the idea of a multiverse because it weakens certain claims for design, let me be clear that the claims in question are not those of Darwinian gradualism but rather those of fine-tuning (e.g., that life could not have evolved if say the strength of gravity or mass of the proton were slightly different). Importantly, the more fine-tuning in physics you have, the less reason you have to doubt that biological evolution would occur. Fine-tuning means a life-friendly universe, whereas standard creationist/Intelligent Design arguments against evolution rely, implicitly or explicitly, on the idea that the universe is not life-friendly enough for biological evolution to occur. If you're someone who (a) wants evolution to be true and (b) is worried that gradualism is improbable, positing a multiverse is at best a change in subject.

Sean M. Davis's statements about macroevolution being controversial, and about the multiverse being a response to Darwinian gradualism's improbability, suggest a weak grasp of evolution and cosmology alike, and that his perspectives on these matters are heavily influenced by creationist/Intelligent Design critiques from far outside the scientific mainstream.

Now, as I mentioned at the outset, David Harsanyi has a list of questions for politicians. Their import, I think, is that Democratic politicians will stumble over these, out of ignorance and/or a desire to not offend the liberal base by stating scientific facts that the base doesn't know or doesn't want to accept. But if the point is to denounce tendentious questions by giving examples of some, Harsanyi certainly has done so. For example:

Is nuclear power the safest energy in the world? According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, around 70 percent of scientists support nuclear power development because it is. Yet large number of liberals oppose and stand in the way of science.
Me: No. The linked poll asks whether scientists support nuclear power, not whether it's the "safest" source of energy. It would be difficult to make a scientific case that nuclear is "safest" compared to say solar or windpower (birds notwithstanding), but far more plausible to say that nuclear is or with proper regulation can be a good idea, given its risks and benefits.

The Harsanyi list is filled with questions that make little sense. Do you believe carbon dioxide is detrimental to human existence? fails to acknowledge the obvious distinction between something being detrimental in a general, let alone absolute, sense and something being detrimental at certain levels or in certain ways; it also blurs whether something is detrimental in a direct way or indirectly. But I am not entirely clear whether Harsanyi thinks Democratic politicians would stumble because these questions are so probing or because the questions are so dumb (or both). I find the questions more dumb than probing.

I'm all for pointing out when liberal/progressive/Democratic pundits and politicians purport to be "sciencey" without foundation. But in doing so, conservative writers should have a firmer grasp of the subjects they're talking about than is evident in the Harsanyi/Davis responses to the Walker kerfluffle.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Advice on (not) being a journalist

In an excellent post at Bloomberg View, journalist Megan McArdle offers some career advice, under the paradoxical headline: "You Want Advice? Don't Ask Journalists." She comes down largely on Felix Salmon's dour side versus Ezra Klein's upbeat one in a debate over whether young people today should go into journalism. McArdle:
So when kids who are passionate about writing ask me how they can get a job doing this thing that they love, I don't tell them to follow their bliss; I tell them there are a lot of things they can love. I loved building computer networks. I loved business school. This is a fantastic job, and believe me, I count my lucky stars every day that I have it. But there are a lot of fascinating things in the world. Go get a job doing something in an industry that is not struggling so hard to get people to pay for their products. 
And if you find, in the end, that you have to write, you will be a better writer for actually knowing something about an industry other than the production and consumption of white papers. One of the biggest weaknesses of modern journalism, and modern politics, is that none of the people in them have any idea what it is like to work for a regular company. Organizations are very different from the inside than the outside, in ways that are not obvious to you until you've lived through a couple of executive bloodlettings and experienced the high-stakes tedium of the annual budget process. If you want to report on the military or global development or poverty programs or health care, go work for that industry and come back with some actual knowledge that you did not gain from earnestly asking insiders how they do their jobs. You'll not only be a better reporter, but you'll also have something to fall back on if your outlet folds.
Me: I could not agree more with the above. In fact, even before journalism's plague of financial difficulties in the past decade, it would have been good advice to spend at least some time immersing yourself in some industry or field other than journalism, so as to develop expertise that, besides its own merits, would also improve any journalism you might do at some point in writing about that area.

Not that being an expert outside of journalism is any guarantee against producing awful journalism even about one's area of expertise. I was genuinely shocked the other day by another Bloomberg View post, this one by economist Noah Smith, that went on at length based on a confusion of "billion" with "trillion" and thus made hash out of what could have been a cogent critique of something Rand Paul had said about the Fed. Smith's piece, now minus the Emily Litella paragraphs, is here.

As I wrote recently, I've been working lately on expanding my knowledge of math. One reason for this is that I want to be able to write more capably about math-related topics and about math itself, a vast field that in my view deserves more and better journalistic coverage than it tends to get. If I were giving advice to a young person considering a journalism career, I would include a suggestion that he or she get exposure to some technical subjects, and so know something journalism types don't tend to know.

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."