Doing Mathematics Differently

Gregory Chaitin in Inference:

ScreenHunter_1721 Feb. 26 19.44Between the physics of the very small (particle or high energy physics) and the physics of the very large (cosmology) lie complex systems like us. In this essay, my subject is conceptual complexity, the complexity of ideas. The main application of these concepts is in meta-mathematics, where one deals with incompleteness and the limits of pure thought.

Mathematics contains a great deal of complexity. In this area, as in so many others, Gottfried Leibniz put his finger on the basic issue.

He did so before anyone else.

Hermann Weyl was both a mathematician and a mathematical physicist. Weyl wrote on mathematics, general relativity, and quantum mechanics, as well as on art and philosophy. His smaller book on philosophy is entitled The Open World. It is made up of lectures Weyl gave in 1932 at Yale University.2 In the philosophy of science, according to Weyl, complexity is essential in understanding the concept of a law of nature. If laws of nature may be arbitrarily complex, he argued, the very concept of a law becomes vacuous. What difference would remain between complex phenomena and the laws meant to explain them if the laws meant to explain them were as complex as the phenomena they are meant to explain?

Laws of nature must be simple.

A good point.

But Leibniz made the same point three centuries before.

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Hillary Clinton, liberal virtue, and the cult of the microloan

02HarpersWeb-OnlineExclusive-Frank-400Thomas Frank at Harper's Magazine:

That was my first experience of the microclimate of goodness that always seems to surround Hillary Rodham Clinton. The mystic bond between high-achieving American professionals and the planet’s most victimized people, I would discover, is a recurring theme in her life and work.

But it is not her theme alone. Regardless of who leads it, professional-class liberalism seems to be forever traveling on a quest for some place of greater righteousness. It is always engaged in a search for some subject of overwhelming, noncontroversial goodness with which it can identify itself, and under whose umbrella of virtue it can put across its self-interested class program.

There have been many other virtue objects over the years, people and ideas whose surplus righteousness could be extracted for deployment elsewhere. The great virtue-rush of the 1990s, for example, was focused on children, then thought to be the last word in overwhelming, noncontroversial goodness. Who could be against kids? No one, of course, and so the race was on to justify in their name whatever your program happened to be. In the course of Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book, It Takes a Village, for example, this favorite rationale of the day—think of the children!—was deployed to explain her husband’s draconian crime bill as well as more directly child-related causes such as charter schools.

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the ethics of drones

51GtIqxcu+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Thomas Nagel at the London Review of Books:

Pacifists are rare. Most people believe that lethal violence may be used in self-defence, or the defence of others, against potentially lethal threats. Military action is justified by a collective institutional version of this basic human right, which sets an outer limit on the right to life. Lethal aggressors who cannot be stopped by lesser means are liable to lethal attack, and this does not violate their right to life so long as they remain a threat. Killing in self-defence is distinct from execution, the killing of someone who is no longer a threat as a punishment for past conduct. It is also usually distinct from assassination, which can be carried out for a wide range of reasons: revenge, political or religious hatred, nationalistic passion and so forth – though occasionally someone who is a lethal threat to the assassin or his community may be targeted.

The development of drone warfare has put these distinctions under strain, and that helps to explain the visceral reaction many people have against it, in spite of its being much less destructive than more traditional forms of military violence. Drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), are more selective in the killing of enemies, produce less collateral damage to non-combatants and impose no physical risk to those who pilot them, since they are sitting in a control station thousands of miles away. Who could ask for more?

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Olivia Laing’s ‘The Lonely City’

9781250039576Philip Hoare at The New Statesman:

The city is lonely because it is so full of people. For Laing, Andy Warhol epitomises the idea that the very act of looking is an expression of that alienation. From his immigrant background, born in Pittsburgh, the misfit boy moves to Manhattan and uses art as a social disguise. He hides behind his tools: from the tape recorder that he calls his “wife” to the Polaroid camera whose pictures don’t even have to go to the chemist to be developed. In his paintings, involving photography and silkscreen, Warhol developed perhaps the most distanced practice of any artist of the 20th century, and in so doing augured the art of the 21st. He wanted to be a machine, and he became one at the expense of his self. Narcissism – even in a person as unsure of his body as Warhol – binds itself with loneliness. “I like being in a vacuum; it leaves me alone to work,” he said.

All that changed when another loner, Valerie Solanas, took a gun to Warhol’s Factory and shot him. As Camille Paglia wrote, the shooting left Warhol “unable to advance beyond his set formulas”; it arrested his ­already arrested development. Although he survived the assassination attempt by Solanas, he retreated further into his own world as a result. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look so ill or so alone as when I met him in 1986, despite or even because of his status as the cynosure of a glamorous art opening. He had become so pale that he seemed to recede into the background.

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Who Will Lead Black Americans?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote on March 5, 2015 in Time:

Kareem-abdul-jabbar-has-an-interesting-theory-about-donald-trumpIt’s either a sad irony or a fitting tribute that the end of Black History Month dribbles right into March Madness. No sooner do we finish celebrating significant African-American contributions to American culture than we get to see some of our finest young black competitors perform amazing feats of athleticism. Seems like even more cause for celebration. Except that a 2012 University of Pennsylvania study concluded that 64% of basketball players in the six top teams in American college conferences are black, though only 3% of the entire student bodies are black. Are colleges exploiting young, black athletes when they’re good for their sports franchises, and ignoring their educational needs otherwise? It certainly looks that way, by the numbers. But who’s manning the watch for African Americans? When it comes to education, when it comes to employment opportunities, when it comes to systemic civil rights violations by police departments like those uncovered this week by the Department of Justice report on Ferguson, Mo., who is willing to take on this intense and often contentious responsibility?

…Where is today’s Dr. King? I’d argue it’s the wrong question. In the act of canonizing Dr. King, we’re forgotten that no movement is ever advanced by one voice alone. This country wasn’t founded by a single person, but a group of visionaries who didn’t always share the same vision. Dr. King’s voice was lifted by many others — Malcolm X, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis — who may have marched to a different drummer but marched in the same direction. Bringing about change requires, as Liam Neeson might say, “a very particular set of skills.” Leaders have to notice subtle shifts in the political landscape that threaten the rights and standing of blacks in society. They have to analyze complex information and question even more complex motivations. They have to be socially responsible in not attributing every societal stumble to racism. They have to have a clear and articulate voice in explaining when injustice occurs, and they must have the courage to tell the world — even when the world doesn’t want to hear it. Finally, they must be able to offer practical solutions to specific problems and have the drive and charisma to inspire people to participate in those solutions.

More here. (Note: At least one post will be dedicated to honor Black History Month throughout February)

What Donald Trump is doing to the Republican Party…. and may yet do to the Democrats

Ali Minai in Barbarikon:

Donald_Trump_August_19,_2015_(cropped)With a deep understanding of the zombification of the Republican electorate, and with the financial resources and the ambition to act on this knowledge, Donald Trump has gone about the business of systematically pressing every button that the Republican Party had built so carefully into their system – except that, in signature Trump style, he has pressed each one ten times as hard as the delicate hands of any Republican political consultant would ever have dared to do. Where a Karl Rove or Lee Atwater might have run a subtly racial campaign commercial or pushed a little xenophobia, Trump has promised high walls, carpet bombings and full-blown torture. He is offering far-right voters trained on little pieces of candy a whole chocolate factory, and they’re eating it up. The Republican elites have been disarmed because Trump is using their own arms to steal their electorate. And the reason they can’t do much about it is not that they haven’t recognized their predicament, but that they recognize it all too well. Their problem is that, to stop Trump, they have to disown the very “ideas” on which they have built their own electoral successes. At best, all they can say is that their wall would be a bit lower, the carpet of their bombing a bit smaller, and their torture limited to waterboarding. That’s a lousy argument to be stuck with!

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The problem with A Female President

Caperton in Feministe:

ClintonWhen I was a little kid, I eagerly awaited 2016 so I could have my chance at being the first female president. I don’t begrudge Hillary Clinton the fact that she may end up beating me to it — my political ambition has faded over time. But the prospect of Madame President still makes me smile. I haven’t seen anyone — anyone of real influence, at least — say that voters should support Hillary Clinton solely because she’s a woman. But the concept of A Female President — not specifically President Hillary Clinton, but simply a female president, as in The Importance Of A Female President, or how It’s Time For A Female President — has come up numerous times throughout election season in support of Clinton’s candidacy, and that’s just not a good choice of selling points. From a marketing standpoint. I say all of this not as someone with a specific political preference (I do have a candidate of choice, and it’s hardly a secret, but it’s inconsequential for current purposes) but as someone who deals in message strategy for a living, and who can tell when a value proposition isn’t going to get the job done. Here’s where the weakness comes in:

Too many counterexamples. Once upon a time, when the Democratic Party was the only party of the Big Two to have the oves to try to run a woman for president, this could have been a more compelling argument. But with the past few years bringing us the specters of Vice President Sarah Palin, President Michele Bachmann, and President Carly Fiorina, “We need a woman in the White House” requires a little more qualification, and an asterisk and fine print really take a lot of impact out of a marketing message.

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The Art of Decay

Jacob Mikanowski in The Point:

ScreenHunter_1720 Feb. 25 22.11One summer, my Polish aunt flew out to visit me in Chicago from Warsaw. Restless by nature and inspired by the breadth of the American plains, she decided to go on a road trip to the great industrial cities of the Middle West. She came back amazed. Detroit made the biggest impression on her. “You wouldn’t believe what a state it’s in.” She proceeded to show me a roll of photographs she had shot there: empty factories, stained smokestacks, gutted mansions, whole streets on which every house was either boarded up or collapsing. I think the vacant lots impressed her the most, the sense they gave of a city draining itself of life, undergoing a kind of devolution, reverting step by step into squares of rubble and green fields.

“How could they just leave it like that—abandon a whole city?”

I didn’t know what to tell her. I didn’t want to tell my aunt that I had seen it all, and more, before, in magazine spreads, on Instagram, in Flickr portfolios, as a backdrop to movies and in glossy photo books like Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled and The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. And I certainly didn’t want to tell her that the photos she was taking were now seen as something morally and politically dubious, examples of what has come to be known as “ruin porn.”

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Why Are So Many Animals Homosexual?

Brandon Keim in Nautilus:

ScreenHunter_1718 Feb. 25 22.05Few creatures can boast of devotions so deep as greylag geese. Most are monogamous; many spend their decade-long adult lives with the same goose, side-by-side in constant communication, taking another partner only if the first should die. It’s a remarkable degree of fidelity, and it includes relationships of a sort that some humans consider unnatural.

Quite a few greylags, you see, are gay. As many as 20 percent by some accounts. That number might be high: It includes those males who first take a male partner but later pair with a female, or whose first bond is with a female, but after she dies, takes up with a gander. That said, plenty more are exclusively homosexual from beginning to end.

Which raises the question: Why?

That’s puzzled quite a few scientists—those who study greylag geese and also the hundreds of other animal species in which homosexuality is, confoundingly, found. After all, evolution is driven by reproduction. In animals, that requires—self-cloning reptiles not withstanding—the union of opposite sexes. Through a reproductive-success lens, homosexuality would appear counterproductive, if not downright aberrant. It’s certainly not aberrant, though, considering its ubiquity.

So to frame the question a bit more scientifically: Is homosexuality, in the words of Kurt Kotrschal, a behavioral biologist at the University of Vienna, “preserved because there was some stabilizing selection, or is it an unavoidable product of brain development?” Was homosexuality useful in evolution’s grand pageant—or just something that popped up and stuck around?

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Tribes and States

Philip Carl Salzman in Inference:

ScreenHunter_1717 Feb. 25 21.59The men surrounding me, in turbans, beards, long jamag shirts, and baggy shalwar pants, asked, “How big is your tribe?” They thought it must be large and powerful, to provide security for me so far from home. One asked, “Is America farther than Tehran?”

It was just about fifty years ago that I picked up a Land Rover at the factory in England, drove across Europe, Turkey, and Iran, to take up residence in Iranian Baluchistan, on the border with Pakistan.

After much support from Nezar Mahmud, the brother of the chief of the Shah Nawazi (formerly Yarahmadzai) tribe, I set up my baby blue canvas tent at the end of the line of black goat-hair tents of the Dadolzai brother-lineage, or brasrend. Descent-based groups were described by the termrend, literally meaning line, encompassing lineages of all sizes, from small families up to the tribe itself.

In this desertic, treeless land, we were surrounded by stony and sandy plains, and craggy, black volcanic hills, with the active volcano Kuh-e Taftan looming in the background.

When I told the men that we did not have tribes or lineages, they were puzzled.

“But what do you do if someone attacks you?”
“We go to the police.”

They burst out laughing. “Who would defend you against the police?” they wondered out loud. They knew that the police in Iran did not work for them; they worked for the state—and for themselves, of course.

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How America Made Donald Trump Unstoppable

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Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone:

The first thing you notice at Donald Trump's rallies is the confidence. Amateur psychologists have wishfully diagnosed him from afar as insecure, but in person the notion seems absurd.

Donald Trump, insecure? We should all have such problems.

At the Verizon Giganto-Center in Manchester the night before the New Hampshire primary, Trump bounds onstage to raucous applause and the booming riffs of the Lennon-McCartney anthem “Revolution.” The song is, hilariously, a cautionary tale about the perils of false prophets peddling mindless revolts, but Trump floats in on its grooves like it means the opposite. When you win as much as he does, who the hell cares what anything means?

He steps to the lectern and does his Mussolini routine, which he's perfected over the past months. It's a nodding wave, a grin, a half-sneer, and a little U.S. Open-style applause back in the direction of the audience, his face the whole time a mask of pure self-satisfaction.

“This is unbelievable, unbelievable!” he says, staring out at a crowd of about 4,000 whooping New Englanders with snow hats, fleece and beer guts. There's a snowstorm outside and cars are flying off the road, but it's a packed house.

He flashes a thumbs-up. “So everybody's talking about the cover of Time magazine last week. They have a picture of me from behind, I was extremely careful with my hair … “

He strokes his famous flying fuzz-mane. It looks gorgeous, like it's been recently fed. The crowd goes wild. Whoooo! Trump!

It's pure camp, a variety show. He singles out a Trump impersonator in the crowd, tells him he hopes the guy is making a lot of money. “Melania, would you marry that guy?” he says. The future first lady is a Slovenian model who, apart from Trump, was most famous for a TV ad in which she engaged in a Frankenstein-style body transfer with the Aflac duck, voiced by Gilbert Gottfried.

She had one line in that ad. Tonight, it's two lines:

“Ve love you, New Hampshire,” she says, in a thick vampire accent. “Ve, together, ve vill make America great again!”

As reactionary patriotic theater goes, this scene is bizarre – Melania Knauss didn't even arrive in America until 1996, when she was all of 26 – but the crowd goes nuts anyway. Everything Trump does works these days.

More here.

The Problem With Evidence-Based Policies

Professor-Ricardo-Hausmann

Ricardo Hausmann in Project Syndicate:

The current so-called “gold standard” of what constitutes good evidence is the randomized control trial, or RCT, an idea that started in medicine two centuries ago, moved to agriculture, and became the rage in economics during the past two decades. Its popularity is based on the fact that it addresses key problems in statistical inference.

For example, rich people wear fancy clothes. Would distributing fancy clothes to poor people make them rich? This is a case where correlation (between clothes and wealth) does not imply causation.

Harvard graduates get great jobs. Is Harvard good at teaching – or just at selecting smart people who would have done well in life anyway? This is the problem of selection bias.

RCTs address these problems by randomly assigning those participating in the trial to receive either a “treatment” or a “placebo” (thereby creating a “control” group). By observing how the two groups differ after the intervention, the effectiveness of the treatment can be assessed. RCTs have been conducted on drugs, micro-loans, training programs, educational tools, and myriad other interventions.

Suppose you are considering the introduction of tablets as a way to improve classroom learning. An RCT would require that you choose some 300 schools to participate, 150 of which would be randomly assigned to the control group that receives no tablets. Prior to distributing the tablets, you would perform a so-called baseline survey to assess how much children are learning in school. Then you give the tablets to the 150 “treatment” schools and wait. After a period of time, you would carry out another survey to find out whether there is now a difference in learning between the schools that received tablets and those that did not.

Suppose there are no significant differences, as has been the case with four RCTs that found that distributing books also had no effect. It would be wrong to assume that you learned that tablets (or books) do not improve learning. What you have shown is that that particular tablet, with that particular software, used in that particular pedagogical strategy, and teaching those particular concepts did not make a difference.

But the real question we wanted to answer was how tablets should be used to maximize learning. Here the design space is truly huge, and RCTs do not permit testing of more than two or three designs at a time – and test them at a snail’s pace. Can we do better?

More here.