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):

UPDATE 2/16: The race of course has gotten even worse, but there are moments when Marco Rubio makes me rethink the negative assessment above.

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.

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.

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.

UPDATE: More here.

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.