Sunday, June 17, 2018

Model-T Algorithms...

Sunday reflection:

“Algorithms don’t make things fair, if you just blithely, blindly apply them. They don’t make things fair. They automate the status quo…
“Science is our only hope and I feel like we’ve created a field we call ‘data science,’ but there’s no science in it. We have not demanded evidence. The sort of hallmark of science is that it needs to be tested and testable, and we need to see the evidence, and we need to test every assumption. And we just haven’t done any of that. We’ve just been driving blind in our Model-T algorithms.”

— Cathy O’Neil on TED Radio Hour

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

On a Jim Holt Kick... and RFI

I’m on a bit of a Jim Holt kick these days, so first a RFI:
I’d enjoy interviewing Jim for my interview series but haven’t found any email contact for him… if anyone has such that they can pass along, email me privately:, (or if I follow you on Twitter you could probably DM me there, @sheckyr ).
[p.s... hope folks have read my latest interview with economist Gary Smith a couple days ago.]
In another bit of serendipity, having recently written a post about humor and jokes, I just discovered that Holt previously wrote a small volume ( "Stop Me If You've Heard This”) on that very subject as well.

Meanwhile, I've now finished his volume, "When Einstein Walked with Gödel," and it is easily one of my favorite reads of the last several years; 350 richly, diverse, engaging pages on a fabulous variety of science/philosophy/history/math-related topics.
I’ll pass along one interesting tidbit he only mentions briefly that I was unfamiliar with. It’s called the “Bogdanov affair,” circa 2002, drawing my interest because it’s oft-referred to as a “reverse Sokal hoax” (a hoax against physics, opposite physicist Alan Sokal’s famous hoax against post-modernist analysis). It involves two French twin brothers and their buzzword-laden “work” in theoretical physics.
Here’s the Wikipedia page on it:

It’s a bit involved and so far as I can tell the degree of the brothers’ sincerity/legitimacy has never been completely settled, even lo these many years later (a real hoax or not?), but I trust highly-reputable John Baez’s take on it here:
Especially interesting to read about in light of all the criticism/skepticism of theoretical physics prevalent these days.

And here’s an old BloggingheadsTV end-segment from January 2008 with Holt and John Horgan taking a "quick foray into mathematics." It starts off with Jim espousing the non-Platonist view that mathematics is invented:
[ small error, when Jim references "Thomas Langlands" of Princeton, I believe he means Robert Langlands of Yale.]

More and more people seem to be espousing the math-is-invented-not-discovered, viewpoint in recent years (though my own guess is that the Platonist view still prevails overall), and I was a little surprised at the confidence with which Holt asserts the non-Platonist stand. Martin Gardner's simple rebuke to the non-Platonists was along the lines of saying that, well before Man existed (let alone any formal study of mathematics), if two dinosaurs were in a field and two more joined them, then there were now four dinosaurs in the field -- i.e., quantity or number, as well as addition, exist whether there is a human mind around to employ such labels or not (mathematics exists apart from human appreciation/use of it). I think he also cited the example of predicting Halley's comet's appearance decades in advance (or for that matter planetary movements) as a case of math being inherent (and discoverable) in physical laws, whether or not the "laws" are discovered or known.

I'm skeptical of binary, either-or questions to begin with, so the easy solution seems to me to just say some parts of math are discovered and other parts are created; these days mathematics is a very large, wide-ranging field so I'm surprised more people don't simply opt for such a middle-ground. And I wonder if Holt (or non-Platonists in general) believe that if an alien civilization, a million years more advanced than us, visits us one day, they might find our mathematics completely foreign and unintelligible to them (or would there not be many shared elements?). Further, if math is created, then does that not mean that all of physics (so firmly based upon math) must likewise be created, not discovered, and is that plausible as well? And chemistry is based on physics, and biology based on chemistry etc... i.e. is all of "science" just a human mental construction with no firm coupling to "reality"? If so, then WHAT? Is all of knowledge or existence just some sort of grand tautology? (Holt, at one point, cites Bertrand Russell's query of whether all of math is just tautology.) Or maybe this is all nothing more than semantic quibbling over the fuzzy meanings of "discovered" and "created."

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Too Good Not to Pass Along (...from Jim Holt)

For Sunday reflection, from Jim Holt's fabulous new volume, "When Einstein Walked with Gödel":
"As for space and time, according to current speculative theories they, too, could well have a discontinuous sand-like structure on the tiniest scale, with the minimum length being the Planck length of 10^-33 centimeters and the minimum time being the Planck time of 10^-43 seconds (exactly the time, it has been observed, that it takes a New York cabbie to honk after the light turns green)."

(p.s.... over at MathTango this morning there is a new interview)

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Of Cartoons and Rorschach Tests (...and Pillows)

Ben Orlin has been on fire lately both on Twitter and his blog… cracking me up with his amateurish-seeming drawings and accompanying thoughts… who knew math could be THIS funny! (let alone funny & deep at the same time!).
But with that said, from time to time one of his scribbles doesn’t strike such a chord with me and I think to myself “mehh, not up to his usual level”… then I go read the comments to him and almost invariably there are some folks just rolling on the floor praising said cartoon as one of his best ever! It’s almost as if each cartoon is some sort of Rorschach test of people’s perceptions and funny bones — partitioning readers into groups.

Some decades ago I worked in a lab with a female colleague who like me, broke up at Gary Larson’s “Far Side” cartoons (…but then who didn’t back-in-the-day). Anyway, again the thing that struck me was how often cartoons that she found absolutely hysterical (like this one) I thought were kinda dumb, and ones that slayed me (like this one), she thought were pretty lame.  Again, Rorschach test or what? I wonder if that ‘baby’ cartoon appeals more to females and the dog/cat especially to pet-lovers (or is that completely off the mark???) — I don’t know what’s going on, except of course senses of humor are highly variable.

As a youngster there was a joke that cracked me up and has ever since… it’s completely stupid, yet something about it inexplicably tickles my fancy even as a rational adult:

I had the weeeirdest dream last night. I dreamt I was eating a GIANT marshmallow… and when I woke up, my pillow was gone.” 

Go figure??? (I’m embarrassed to say I love it!)

Or to get at least a little more modern, here’s one of my absolute favorite (of so many) Steven Wright lines:
I installed a skylight in my apartment.... The people who live above me are furious!

Yet I rarely see it make lists of his top jokes. C’mon people, that’s pure gold! (...but, honestly I don't know why these delight me so, though there has been a lot of study of what makes something funny, HERE, HERE).
I've always been a sucker for the quick one-liner, Henny Youngman-Rodney Dangerfield-Steven Wright style of jokes; more bang per word. I have a friend who loves to tell long, involved, story-like jokes that try my patience, even when the punch line is good.

My mother used to say (semi-seriously) that there was no accounting for peoples’ tastes in mates or wallpaper! I might add to that, humor.

Almost two decades ago British psychologist Dr. Richard Wiseman famously ran a year-long experiment attempting to discover the best joke in the world! If you’ve never read about it, it’s worth a gander for sheer entertainment:

Here verbatim, in the final analysis, are the top two chosen jokes back then (by now, most will be familiar with them):

1)  Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, "My friend is dead! What can I do?". The operator says "Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says "OK, now what?"

2)  Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson were going camping. They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes woke Watson up and said: “Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you see.”

Watson replied: “I see millions and millions of stars.” 

Holmes said: “and what do you deduce from that?” 

Watson replied: “Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like earth out there. And if there are a few planets like earth out there, there might also be life.” 

And Holmes said: “Watson, you idiot, it means that somebody stole our tent.”

Funny? sure, but best two in the world… I don’t think so; I mean neither one involves eating a pillow!

OK, so none of this has much to do with math, other than to say, Ben, keep up the great work… for the benefit of those of us who astutely recognize and appreciate which of your scrawlings are truly the funniest.

Ohhh, and a reminder to readers that this is on the way in September:

Monday, June 4, 2018

“Her name is not Kurt” …Of Language, Meaning, Gender

What’s in a name?… No math today, just a digression to a little semantics and psycholinguistics….

A short while back Jim Propp tweeted out:
My kid just told me ‘I have good news and bad news for you.’ It turned out that the good news was that there was no bad news and the bad news was that there was no good news. I’m still trying to figure out how many of these assertions were true.
Without thinking much about it, I snarkily tweeted back:
Is his name Kurt…?

…and Jim responded simply with:
Her name is not Kurt.

…giving me quite a chuckle! …at my own obtuseness… after I went back to re-read his tweet and realized that indeed he had never indicated the gender of this youngun. Instead, my brain spontaneously conveyed me along a map Jim had not provided.

…Most of you know the now classic doctor/son riddle, a version of which runs like this:

A father and son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene, while the son is taken to the nearest hospital. The doctor comes in and exclaims "I can not operate on this boy."
A nurse asks, "Why not?"
The doctor replies, "Because he's my son." 
How is this possible?

(…the “doctor” is the boy’s mother)
Though today it is well known, I dare say when this riddle was first proposed most people fell for it.

As with “waiter”/“waitress,” “steward”/“stewardess,” “actor”/“actress,” do we need words like “doctoress” and “lawyeress” to make gender distinctions more clear? (NO, I don’t believe that, but I do confess that upon hearing a term like “doctor," "dentist," or "lawyer” my baby-boomer mind does immediately dredge up the image of a male… just as “nurse” promptly produces a female image). Mental habits die slowly.

Somewhat serendipitously, a few days after my exchange with Jim, Lera Boroditsky tweeted out a link to an article on the topic of gendered language and “linguistic relativity” (also known as the Whorfian or Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, which says in essence that language shapes in part how we think about, or perceive, the world):

I’m a long-time believer in some form of “linguistic relativity” (it comes in weak and strong forms), as is Dr. Boroditsky (though several major linguists are NOT). So the effects (especially cognitive or subconscious) of language are by no means unimportant to me.

Many years ago someone wrote me to complain about the “sexist” use of the word “laymen” (instead of “laypersons”) in the subheading (above) of my blog.  I’m sensitive to some uses of the suffix “man” as in “chairman” or “postman” or "fireman," but others don’t much bother me, including “layman” — moreover I wanted the subheading to have the cadence and alliteration of “layman;” “layperson” wouldn’t cut it, so their complaint didn't resonate with me.

But I do wonder where we draw the line with such worrying over the syllable “man.” Do we need replacement words for “human,” “mankind,” “woman”… or what about “manipulate,” “mandate,” or, hey in mathematics, the term “manifold”? Seriously, I’m unsure where different people might draw the line for which terms are problematic and which are innocuous, or can we even ever escape the shackles of language, no matter how we might try.
Indeed, in many languages virtually all nouns are “gendered” and have been for 1000’s of years. Moreover, apart from just gender, words carry all sorts of deep-seated, provoking connotations and subtle meanings that may result in prejudices or irrational notions of which we are barely aware, and yet bear power over us. The failure to recognize this or educate people about it from early on has helped lead to the unconscionable demagoguery that now rules our nation, and history tells us where that leads (it also leads to the ridiculous power of advertising and marketing, by the way). [Meanwhile, today 'freedom of speech,' once seen as the bedrock of liberalism, is being challenged by the category of “hate speech” and other forms of speech/words labelled as “offensive” -- and here I'm tempted to refer readers to Professor ;) George Carlin: ]
We are repeatedly told as youngsters that 'Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us,' but in reality rarely take it to heart.

Anyway, at the end of the Boroditsky article above, Lera is quoted as saying, Maybe it’s time to be able to imagine a human without categorizing them by gender, and see them as more of an individual.

I wholeheartedly agree, as we spend too much time and energy separating ourselves into conflicting, chest-thumping groups, tribes, polarized pigeonholes. I sometimes fondly describe myself as a ‘bipedal primate,’ and wish we could all simply see ourselves in no more specific category than that. But realistically, I know that seeking out group affiliations is what we all instinctively do — so I guess I’ll admit to being a liberal, progressive, democratic-socialist, anti-fascist, cake-loving layman....

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Of God and the Devil

For Sunday reflection, this classic old Andre Weil:

 "God exists since mathematics is consistent, and the Devil exists since we cannot prove it."

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Re-visiting the Quincunx

Here’s one of Mike Lawler’s sons, being introduced to a Galton board (also known as a quincunx or even "bean machine," and somewhere referenced as "math in motion"), probably just a bit older than I was when I first saw a large one at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, decades ago, and was mesmerized (previously written about here:

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Views on Math Education

A couple of important but different takes on math education from the week:

1)  James Tanton on K-12 education:

2)  ...and, calculus vs. statistics/data science -- a timely, ongoing debate in math secondary education:

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Delight and Exaltation

Sunday reflection...

“The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry.”
— Bertrand Russell

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Book Notes...

First a clarification:
Recently I linked to this excerpt that I was excited to see from a new Jim Holt book (“When Einstein Walked with Gödel”) and assumed the book was entirely about Einstein, Gödel, Cantor, infinity, and the like:

However I now have the book in-hand, fresh off the press, and it is even more sumptuous than that, as it is a compendium of Holt essays over a couple of decades, covering a much wider range of fascinating topics, of which the excerpt was just one. Leafing through it I can already tell it will be one of my favorite volumes of the year… and this year looks to have more wonderful math-related books than I'd anticipated.

We just got the news yesterday that Ben Orlin will be out in September with “Math With Bad Drawings” (the book)… I mean how freakin' coooool is THAT! Just a few days ago I tweeted that Ben’s mind was either a marvel… or, a mutation ;) I’m still not sure which it is, but CONGRATULATIONS to him either way, and to the publisher that snagged him! Oh, and he'll be doing a book tour (so catch him before he retires to some paradise island and lives off book royalties henceforth).

Also due in September, is Eugenia Cheng’s latest (and timely) offering “The Art of Logic in an Illogical World.”  Now come on you math writers could you please get your act together and space these volumes out a little better! Actually, I have an uncorrected review copy of the Cheng's book and will be reporting on it shortly.

Right around the corner in June, Sabine Hossenfelder’s “Lost In Math” is due to hit stores, for those with a penchant for the overlap of math and physics.

Due in August is Deborah Mayo’s “Statistical Inference as Severe Testing: How to Get Beyond the Statistics Wars” which may well be more geared to professional statisticians than to a general audience (not sure).

I’ll reiterate a thumb’s-up for David Acheson’s slim little introduction/primer (that I mentioned briefly before) on elements of calculus, “The Calculus Story,” especially for any just starting or refreshing their journey into calculus.

Also, on my desk right now is Nassim Taleb’s latest, “Skin In the Game,” a hugely fun, entertaining read (less than 100 pages in), but more philosophy (or even social anthropology) than math thus far (there is math in the brief Appendix), so I’ll blurb about it at some point, though it might not re-appear on my year-end list.

Have a few other non-math books in my queue at the moment, but the only one I’ll mention is Robert Wright’s “Why Buddhism Is True,” newly out in paperback (a poor title methinks, but an engaging treatment of the subject for those so interested).

A couple of other mathy books I’d like to get to before year’s end, but may not at this rate, are Vicky Neale’s “Closing the Gap,” and Hans Rosling’s “Factfulness.”

Have a feeling that come December it will be harder-than-usual to pick a favorite volume of the year.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Infallibility... Nope

Today's Sunday reflection:

“Mathematics has the completely false reputation of yielding infallible conclusions. Its infallibility is nothing but identity. Two times two is not four, but it is just two times two, and that is what we call four for short. But four is nothing new at all. And thus it goes on and on in its conclusions, except that in the higher formulas the identity fades out of sight.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Thursday, May 17, 2018

New From Jim Holt on Infinity and More

One of my favorite past posts to write was a little tribute to David Foster Wallace for his volume on infinity, “Everything and More”:

Jim Holt now has a new book, When Einstein Walked With Gödel, excerpted here with this wonderful passage on Wallace and more:

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

9/11 Mortality

Here’s a “lateral thinking puzzle” I kind of liked from this week’s Futility Closet podcast, based upon a prior Guardian news piece (I’ve re-worded and adapted):

The official death toll from the 2001 September 11 hijacked-plane terrorist attacks stands at almost 3000 people, but a German professor specializing in risk, estimates that almost 1600 additional individuals died in the year following the 9/11 attacks due to that terrorism. These are NOT people who died of direct or physical exposure to the attack itself; i.e. first-responders/rescuers etc. exposed to debris/dust/air etc., but people who died from other choices or behavior in the year following. Can you guess the cause?
.answer below

.Answer:  the professor estimates that as a result of increased fears of airplane travel in the year following the 9/11 terrorism, air travel decreased by between 12 and 20%, while long distance automobile road trips increased significantly.  Statistically, car travel is far less safe than plane travel, and would result in a higher number of deaths than would be the case if those same individuals had opted instead to fly.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Stan the Man... and Mathematician

Stanislaw Ulam via Wikipedia

Yesterday marked the 34th anniversary of the death of Stanislaw Ulam. Most math fans know of him via his Ulam spiral and perhaps some other contributions, but given the wide range and scope of his efforts in mathematics I’m surprised he isn’t an even better known figure to many folks.
His almost 30-year-old autobiography,“Adventures of a Mathematician” is here:

…or you can also read sections of it online here:

And I highly encourage everyone to read this wonderful older piece by his friend and colleague Gian-Carlo Rota (lending a much richer profile of Ulam than does his Wikipedia piece):

To pique your interest it starts off thusly:

“One morning in 1946 in Los Angeles, Stan Ulam, a newly appointed professor at the University of Southern California, awoke to find himself unable to speak. A few hours later he underwent an emergency operation. His skull was sawed open and his brain tissue sprayed with newly discovered antibiotics. The diagnosis — encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. After a short convalescence he managed to recover, apparently unscathed. 
In time, however, some changes in his personality became obvious to those who knew him. Paul Stein, one of his collaborators at Los Alamos, remarked that, while before his operation Stan had been a meticulous dresser, a dandy of sorts, afterwards he became visibly careless in the details of his attire, even though his clothing was still expensively chosen. 
When I met him, many years after the event, I could not help noticing that his trains of thought were unusual, even for a mathematician. In conversation he was livelier and wittier than anyone I had ever met, and his ideas, which he spouted out at odd intervals, were fascinating beyond anything I have witnessed before or since. However, he seemed to studiously avoid going into any details. He would dwell on a given subject no longer than a few minutes, then impatiently move on to something entirely unrelated.”

And elsewhere, Rota wrote of his friend, “Ulam's mind is a repository of thousands of stories, tales, jokes, epigrams, remarks, puzzles, tongue-twisters, footnotes, conclusions, slogans, formulas, diagrams, quotations, limericks, summaries, quips, epitaphs, and headlines. In the course of a normal conversation he simply pulls out of his mind the fifty-odd relevant items, and presents them in linear succession. A second-order memory prevents him from repeating himself too often before the same public.”

Just one more in the panoply of fascinating and brilliant mathematical characters....

Sunday, May 13, 2018

'devoid of factual, empirical content'

Sunday reflection from Carl Hempel:

“The nature of the peculiar certainty of mathematics is now clear: A mathematical theorem is certain relatively to the set of postulates from which it is derived; i.e., it is necessarily true if those postulates are true; and this is so because the theorem, if rigorously proved, simply re-asserts part of what has been stipulated in the postulates… A mathematical truth is irrefutably certain just because it is devoid of factual, or empirical content.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Teachers In Our Lives

A 'change in venue' today...  In place of the usual "Sunday Reflection" normally found here, I'll refer readers instead to a longer, new post now up at MathTango this morning. Enjoy...

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Two For Wednesday

Just some mid-week offerings:

a)  If you like your math with a little physics and a little history, this recent piece is Evelyn Lamb's first for Symmetry Magazine:

...and Dr. Lamb's latest "TinyLetter" is newly-out, if you need to catch up with her doings for the month of April:

b)  A somewhat quirky blog from Mark Dominus that’s been around for quite awhile, but that I only recently stumbled upon (he touches on a number of subjects, but this link focuses on his math posts that many may find of interest):

Sunday, April 29, 2018


For today’s Sunday reflection, a little Rudy Rucker:
“…the ultimate success will never be ours [scientists]. Nowhere in the castle of science is there a final exit to absolute truth.
“This seems terribly depressing. But, paradoxically, to understand Gödel’s proof is to find a sort of liberation. For many logic students, the final breakthrough to full understanding of the Incompleteness Theorem is practically a conversion experience. This is partly a by-product of the potent mystique Gödel’s name carries. But, more profoundly, to understand the essentially labyrinthine nature of the castle is, somehow, to be free of it.”