Billiards, Chaos, and the 2014 Abel Prize

by Jonathan Kujawa

6a01a510678336970c01a3fce2ebbf970b-120wi

Yakov Sinai

On March 26th it was announced that Yakov Sinai, a mathematician at Princeton University and the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics, had won the 2014 Abel Prize. The Abel prize was established in 2001 by the government of Norway and was first given 2003. Unlike the more famous Fields Medal, which (in)famously can only be granted to those under the age of forty, the Abel prize recognizes an individual for the breadth and depth of their entire career. It has quickly become the highest award one can earn in mathematics. Indeed, the list of prizewinners over the past ten years reads like a who's who of influential mathematicians.

Dr. Sinai won the prize “for his fundamental contributions to dynamical systems, ergodic theory, and mathematical physics”. Fortunately, I'm completely unqualified to tell you about Dr. Sinai's work. I say fortunately because Jordan Ellenberg already does an excellent job explaining Dr. Sinai's work in layman's terms as part of the announcement of the winner. You can watch the video here. Dr. Ellenberg gives a very nice twenty-minute overview of Dr. Sinai's work starting at the nine minute mark. Highly recommended!

I also say fortunately because it gives me the excuse to tell you about some cool math. A big part of Dr. Sinai's work is in the area of “Dynamical Systems.” This is a rare case where the name of a mathematical discipline actually tells you what the field is all about. Simply put, researchers in dynamical systems are interested in studying how a given system changes over time. The artist Tristan Perich explores the same territory by examining the upredictable dynamics of using computer code to draw in an unsheltered environment.

Perich_Tristan_Machine_Drawing_Maliekel_Process

Tristan Perich's drawing machine in action [0].

This is the sort of math you would be interested in if you want to model and predict the weather, the climate, the stock market, the reaction in the combustion chamber of an engine or in a nuclear explosion, etc. Of course these are all wildly difficult problems. Even with all our modern computing power it's hard to make progress. So here we'll instead think about much, much simpler examples which still exhibit some of the same interesting phenomena.

Read more »

Are women too emotional to be effective leaders?

by Quinn O'Neill

6a01156f4da159970b01a51192c59f970c-300wiIt is a widely held view that women are more emotional than men, and some argue that this makes them unsuitable for positions that demand important, cool-headed decision making. The argument often rears its head in discussions about women in politics – particularly as prospective presidents – and I've heard it asserted by both males and females.

The claim that women are more emotional should immediately raise the question of what we mean by emotional. Perhaps we're referring to the intensity at which one experiences an emotion. It's quite possible that women do feel emotion more intensely but this would be difficult to establish with certainty. Emotions are subjective in nature, as are individuals' ratings of the their intensity. Would two people experiencing the same emotion at the same intensity necessarily rate it similarly? It's hard to say.

Alternatively, we might equate emotionality with emotional demonstrativeness. In this sense, a person crying at a sad movie would be deemed more emotional than his or her dry-eyed companion, even if both are feeling equally sad. In this context, one might guess that women are indeed more emotional than men. It seems to me, at least, that they are more likely to cry when watching a sad movie, and more likely to cry in public for other reasons as well. It's important to consider, however, that social norms and expectations differ for men and women when it comes to crying, with it generally being more acceptable for females. If crying were equally acceptable for both sexes, would women still cry more often? Maybe. Maybe not.

It may also be the case that media portrayals of men and women distort our views on gender and crying. In the political domain, Hillary Clinton's tears seemed to garner a lot more media attention – particularly of the negative variety – than those of George Bush junior or senior, Barack Obama, or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnE6HHH_50E” target=”_self” title=”Joe Biden”>Joe Biden. Jessica Wakeman, writing for FAIR, detailed the sexist media portrayal of Clinton's emotional display.

Whether we equate emotionality with the intensity of the experience or with demonstrativeness, there's a wide array of emotions to consider aside from sadness. What about anger? When angry, which sex is more likely to punch walls or other people? The vast majority of violent crime is committed by men, and while all incidents may not result from emotions getting the upper hand, I'd guess that a large proportion does. Violent crime certainly isn't the result of the kind of rational, level-headed decision-making we expect of good leaders.

Read more »

Sharing Our Sorrow Via Facebook

by Jalees Rehman

Geteiltes Leid ist halbes Leid (“Shared sorrow is half the sorrow”) is a popular German proverb which refers to the importance of sharing bad news and troubling experiences with others. The therapeutic process of sharing takes on many different forms: we may take comfort in the fact that others have experienced similar forms of sorrow, we are often reassured by the empathy and encouragement we receive from friends, and even the mere process of narrating the details of what is troubling us can be beneficial. Finding an attentive audience that is willing to listen to our troubles is not always easy. In a highly mobile, globalized world, some of our best friends may be located thousands of kilometers away, unable to meet face-to-face. The omnipresence of social media networks may provide a solution. We are now able to stay in touch with hundreds of friends and family members, and commiserate with them. But are people as receptive to sorrow shared via Facebook as they are in face-to-face contacts?

Facebook

A team of researchers headed by Dr. Andrew High at the University of Iowa recently investigated this question and published their findings in the article “Misery rarely gets company: The influence of emotional bandwidth on supportive communication on Facebook“. The researchers created three distinct Facebook profiles of a fictitious person named Sara Thomas who had just experienced a break-up. The three profiles were identical in all respects except for how much information was conveyed about the recent (fictitious) break-up. In their article, High and colleagues use the expression “emotional bandwidth” to describe the extent of emotions conveyed in the Facebook profile.

In the low bandwidth scenario, the profile contained the following status update:

“sad and depressed:(“

Status update

The medium bandwidth profile included a change in relationship status to “single” in the timeline, in addition to the low bandwidth profile update “sad and depressed:(“.

Relationship update

Finally, the high emotional bandwidth profile not only contained the updates of the low and medium bandwidth profiles, but also included a picture of a crying woman (the other two profiles had no photo, just the standard Facebook shadow image).

Face

The researchers then surveyed 84 undergraduate students (enrolled in communications courses, average age 20, 53% female) and presented them with screenshots of one of the three profiles.

Read more »

Monday Poem

Who's Urizen

In William’s crisp mandala Blake_god_creating
Urizen asymmetrically stoops

Laying duality on the world,
cleaving philosophers’ minds,
inspiring theologians to settle scores,
he undoes the unity of chaos
splitting it to bits like chips
to feed the dogs of wars

Reaching down, this buff, man-like self
curiously in his prime
with old head coiffed white
raked by wind gusting furiously
through heaven’s open door,
Urizen bends to scribe a zero with his compass,
leaving nothing out, including all

From his plush but sanguinary perch
He loads the dark with That and This
There and Here, Was and Is, tendering to Man
the dubious consciousness of Bliss,
propping all its characters to fall

by Jim Culleny
3/30/14

Graphic: Ancient of Days, by William Blake

“I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.” —Daniel 7:9

The Rationalist and the Romantic

By Namit Arora

On Arundhati Roy’s introduction to Dr. BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste.

RoyAmbedkar2A few weeks ago, the Indian publishing house Navayana released an annotated, “critical edition” of Dr. BR Ambedkar’s classic, Annihilation of Caste (AoC). Written in 1936, AoC was meant to be the keynote address at a conference but was never delivered. Unsettled by the scathing text of the speech and faced by Ambedkar’s refusal to water it down, the caste Hindu organizers of the conference had withdrawn their invitation to speak. Ambedkar, an “untouchable”, later self-published AoC and two expanded editions, which included MK Gandhi’s response to it and his own rejoinder.

AoC, as S. Anand points out in his editor’s note, happens to be “one of the most obscure as well as one of the most widely read books in India.” The Navayana edition of AoC carries a 164-page introduction by Arundhati Roy, The Doctor and the Saint (read an excerpt). The publisher’s apparent strategy was to harness Roy to raise AoC’s readership among savarna (or caste Hindu) elites to whom it was in fact addressed, but who have largely ignored it for over seven decades, even as countless editions of it in many languages have deeply inspired and empowered generations of Dalits.

However, this new edition has drawn a mixed response. Expressions of praise coexist alongside howls of disapproval and allegations of an ugly politics of power and privilege, co-option and misrepresentation. To many Dalit and a few savarna writers and activists, this Roy-Navayana project—Navayana is a small independent publishing house run by Anand, a Brahmin by birth—is a bitter reminder that no Dalit-led edition of AoC can get such attention in the national media, that gimmicks are still needed in this benighted land to “introduce” AoC and Ambedkar to the savarnas, that once again, caste elites like Roy, with little history of scholarly or other serious engagement with caste (as Anand himself suggested about Roy three years ago), are appropriating AoC and admitting the beloved leader of Dalits into their pantheon on their own terms—all while promoting themselves en route: socially, professionally, and financially (see this open letter to Roy and her reply).

Read more »

Every Genuine Encounter Destroys Our Existing World: On Things

by Madhu Kaza

IMG_1784

It’s cold outside. New York City is probably exciting as ever out there, but I’m staying in with my soup and my soup spoon and all of the spoons, with books listing this way and that on the shelves, socks and sweaters stuffed into drawers, stray paperclips on the loose, dust storms gathering behind the sofa and an African stone egg that's warming either under my pillow or somewhere under my bed. It would all be uneventful, except that I’ve been rereading Michal Ajvaz’s novel, The Other City.

The Other City begins with the narrator taking refuge from a snowstorm in a bookstore in Prague. Through a series of magical encounters that follow, the novel leads us into “the other city,” which exists as a shadow city just beyond the Prague that is known. The Other City is a labyrinthine and fantastical place where books turn into jungles, the alphabet becomes a virus, oysters attack cities, and fish battle inside glass statues. Through the layering and pile up of surreal imagery Ajvaz conjures a world that is wonderful and terrible, a place of awe.

Though it’s a strange place the Other City is not inaccessible or distant. Ajvaz insists that if we truly learned how to look and pay attention we’d find that we are right at the edge of otherness: “The frontier of our world is not far away; it doesn’t run along the horizon or in the depths. It glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings; out of the corner of our eye we can always glimpse another world, without realizing it.” He notes that we overlook the nooks and crannies, the closets and the dusty spaces of our homes or between our homes where things are happening:

Even inside the space we regard as our property there are places that lie beyond our power, lairs inhabited by creatures whose home is over the border. We are familiar with the strange queasiness we feel when we encounter the reverse side of things, and their inner cavities which refuse to take part in our game: when we shove aside a cabinet during spring-cleaning and we suddenly find ourselves looking at the ironically impassive face of its reverse side, which stares into dark chambers that are mirrored on its surface, when we unscrew the back of the television set and run our fingers over the tangle of wires, when we crawl under the bed for a pencil that rolled away and we suddenly find ourselves in a mysterious cavern, whose walls are covered with magical, trembling wisps of dust, a cavern in which something evil is slowly maturing until one quiet day it will emerge into the light.

Ajvaz tells us not only that is there a world unfolding from the perspective of the spoons in a drawer, the backside of the cabinet, or the space between walls in an apartment, but also that encounters with this world can be frightening. “Every genuine encounter destroys our existing world,” says the narrator. What counts as a genuine encounter must be terrifying because it puts us in contact with the unknown; it makes the familiar strange.

Read more »

Uncle Warren Thanks You For Playing

by Misha Lepetic

“Is it the media that induce fascination in the masses,
or is it the masses who direct the media into the spectacle?”
~Baudrillard

12959851-standardI usually buy my cigarettes at a corner store, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, that, not unusually for such establishments, also does a brisk trade in lottery tickets. Now, buyers of both cigarettes and lottery tickets are placing bets on outcomes with dismally known chances of winning. My fellow consumers are betting that they will win something, and I am betting that I won't (I also console myself with the sentiment that I am having more fun in the process). But in both cases, the terms of exchange are clear – we give our cash to the vendor, and buy the option on the pleasure of suspense, waiting to see if we have won. Beyond the potential payout, there really isn't that much more to discuss: the transactions are discrete and anonymous. And in the end, someone always wins the lottery, and someone always lives to a hundred.

I was reminded of the perceived satisfactions of participating in games of chance with hopeless odds after hearing a recent piece on NPR discussing quite the prize: a cool $1 billion dollars for anyone who nailed a 'perfect bracket.' In other words, the accurate identification of the outcomes of all 63 games of the NCAA men's basketball playoffs. Sponsored by a seemingly oddball trinity of Warren Buffett, Quicken Loans and Yahoo!, the prize is, on the face of it, an exercise in absurdity. But its construction is superb, and worth examining further, for reasons that have little to do with basketball, or probability, but rather for the questions it provokes around the value of information.

Read more »

A Call for Reform: Student Mental Health on College Campuses

by Kathleen Goodwin

There are many bitter and hopeless thoughts that have plagued me since the night that Wendy Chang took her own life in her Harvard dorm room in April 2012, just 34 days before she would have graduated. However, it wasn't until this past January, when Madison Holleran, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, committed suicide in Philadelphia, that I have felt compelled to organize these thoughts to understand what may have prevented these horrifically tragic deaths. Madison was a varsity track runner at Penn and was reported to have a loving family and many friends. She was also so remarkably beautiful that no news source reporting on her death could help but comment on it. Wendy and I were both part of a close-knit student organization and having known and worked with her, I can attest that she was among the most gregarious, creatively talented, and vibrant human beings I have ever encountered. The hundreds of Harvard students who attended Wendy's filled-to-capacity memorial service all voiced similar sentiments describing her uniquely magnetic nature.

In the immediate aftermath of Wendy's suicide, I blamed the environment at Harvard that seemed to value our accomplishments over our happiness. However, when I had my own episodes of anxiety and depression in the year following her death, it was the presence of my roommates, friends, and a few exceptionally helpful university administrators who prevented these issues from spiraling out of control. While I may criticize American colleges for not doing enough to support the mental health of students, I realize that colleges, including Harvard, offer an invaluable opportunity for development within what can be a supportive community. However, many colleges today are failing their students who grapple with mental health issues. Numerous require or compel students who admit to suicidal thoughts or serious mental illness to take a leave of absence, or even to formally withdraw. Most colleges claim that they are not adequately equipped to help students with mental illness and implicitly suggest that it is not their responsibility to provide resources to mentally ill students, especially when these may be diverting resources from students who are “well”. I argue that, on the contrary, it is the direct responsibility of these institutions to create a campus environment where students struggling with mental illness can be supported.

Read more »

What Is Good Taste?

by Dwight Furrow

ScreenHunter_582 Mar. 31 09.07I suspect most people would say “good taste” is an ability to discern what other people in your social group (or the social group you aspire to) find attractive. Since most people cannot say much about why they like something, it seems as though good taste is just the ability to identify a shared preference, nothing more.

But looked at from the perspective of artists, musicians, designers, architects, chefs and winemakers, etc. this answer is inadequate. It doesn't explain why creative people, even when they achieve some success, strive to do better. If people find pleasure in what you do and good taste is nothing more than an ability to identify what other people in your social group enjoy, then there is little point in artists trying to get better, since the idea of “better” doesn't refer to any standard aside from “what people like”. So it seems like there must be more to good taste than that.

Furthermore, good taste cannot merely be a matter of having a sense of prevailing social conventions because artists and critics often produce unconventional judgments about what is good. Instead, having good taste involves knowing what is truly excellent or of genuine value, which may have little to do with social conventions.

But philosophers have struggled to say more about what good taste is. David Hume, the 18th Century British philosopher, argued that good taste involves “delicacy of sentiment” by which he meant the ability to detect what makes something pleasing or not. In his famous example of the two wine critics, one argued that a wine is good but for a taste of leather he detected; the other argued that the wine is good but for a slight taste of metal. Both were proven right when the container was emptied and a key with a leather thong attached was found at the bottom.

Thus, Hume seemed to think that good taste was roughly what excellent blind tasters have—the ability, acquired through practice and comparison, to taste subtle components of a wine that most non-experts would miss and pass summary judgment on them. The same could be said of the ability to detect subtle, good-making features of a painting or piece of music. The virtue of such analytic tasting of wines is that the detection of discreet components can at least in theory be verified by science and thus aspires to a degree of objectivity. Flavor notes such as “apricot” or “vanilla” are explained by detectable chemical compounds in the wine. The causal theory lends itself to this kind of test of acuity since causal properties can often be independently verified.

Read more »

Interrogating a Poet

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

6a017ee9ca5f10970d01a3fcdf1181970bYou write of your country as if from a great distance.

Distance is journey’s squinting twin; it courts vision. My country, you will understand, came from vision’s egg. It came from a dreamer of journeys—a poet who entertained nightly the spirits of distant poets: Plato, Ghazali, Rumi, Hafiz, Goethe— sojourners all. What distilled from their vapor was the map of my country.

You can find black and white reels of the millions who made the journey into this dreamer’s land—on trains, oxcarts, on foot. Jour is day, and journey, the work wheel with dreams for spokes we turn daily.

The souring of his dream may also be seen best on a journey; myopic distance fusing radii surreptitiously, organically— vision brought into clear focus: New hay turning into gold— new sweat.

We learn to avoid shadows. We walk in the light cast by our own missteps.

Read more »

An Attempt to Discover the Laws of Literature

Rothman-moretti-2-580

Joshua Rothman profiles Franco Moretti's efforts at 'distant reading' in the New Yorker (via Andrew Sullivan):

Franco Moretti, a professor at Stanford, whose essay collection “Distant Reading” just won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, fascinates critics in large part because he does want to answer the question definitively. He thinks that literary criticism ought to be a science. In 2005, in a book called “Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History,” he used computer-generated visualizations to map, among other things, the emergence of new genres. In 2010, he founded the Stanford Literary Lab, which is dedicated to analyzing literature with software. The basic idea in Moretti’s work is that, if you really want to understand literature, you can’t just read a few books or poems over and over (“Hamlet,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Waste Land”). Instead, you have to work with hundreds or even thousands of texts at a time. By turning those books into data, and analyzing that data, you can discover facts about literature in general—facts that are true not just about a small number of canonized works but about what the critic Margaret Cohen has called the “Great Unread.” At the Literary Lab, for example, Moretti is involved in a project to map the relationships between characters in hundreds of plays, from the time of ancient Greece through the nineteenth century. These maps—which look like spiderwebs, rather than org charts—can then be compared; in theory, the comparisons could reveal something about how character relationships have changed through time, or how they differ from genre to genre. Moretti believes that these types of analyses can highlight what he calls “the regularity of the literary field. Its patterns, its slowness.” They can show us the forest rather than the trees.

Moretti’s work has helped to make “computational criticism,” and the digital humanities more generally, into a real intellectual movement. When, the week before last, Stanford announced that undergraduates would be able to enroll in “joint majors” combining computer science with either English or music, it was hard not to see it as a sign of Moretti’s influence. Yet Moretti has critics. They point out that, so far, the results of his investigations have been either wrong or underwhelming. (A typical Moretti finding is that, in eighteenth-century Britain, for instance, the titles of novels grew shorter as the market for novels grew larger—a fact that is “interesting” only in quotes.) And yet these sorts of objections haven’t dimmed the enthusiasm for Moretti’s work.

More here. Also see this pushback from Micah Mattix in The American Conservative.

The Top of the World

Cover00

Doug Henwood reviews Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in Bookforum:

The core message of this enormous and enormously important book can be delivered in a few lines: Left to its own devices, wealth inevitably tends to concentrate in capitalist economies. There is no “natural” mechanism inherent in the structure of such economies for inhibiting, much less reversing, that tendency. Only crises like war and depression, or political interventions like taxation (which, to the upper classes, would be a crisis), can do the trick. And Thomas Piketty has two centuries of data to prove his point.

In more technical terms, the central argument of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that as long as the rate of return on capital, r, exceeds the rate of broad growth in national income, g—that is, r > g—capital will concentrate. It is an empirical fact that the rate of return on capital—income in the form of profits, dividends, rents, and the like, divided by the value of the assets that produce the income—has averaged 4–5 percent over the last two centuries or so. It is also an empirical fact that the growth rate in GDP per capita has averaged 1–2 percent. There are periods and places where growth is faster, of course: the United States in younger days, Japan from the 1950s through the 1980s, China over the last thirty years. But these are exceptions—and the two earlier examples have reverted to the mean. So if that 4–5 percent return is largely saved rather than being bombed, taxed, or dissipated away, it will accumulate into an ever-greater mass relative to average incomes. That may seem like common sense to anyone who’s lived through the last few decades, but it’s always nice to have evidence back up common sense, which isn’t always reliable.

There’s another trend that intensifies the upward concentration of wealth: Fortunes themselves are ratcheting upward; within the proverbial 1 percent, the 0.1 percent are doing better than the remaining 0.9 percent, and the 0.01 percent are doing better than the remaining 0.09 percent, and so on. The bigger the fortune, the higher the return.

More here. Also see these reviews of the book by Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson, Heather Boushey, and Branko Milanovic.