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Friday, August 2, 2013

The Uses of Mathematics (via Keith Devlin)


I had a different post all prepared for today, but Keith Devlin put up a new post at his "Devlin's Angle" blog yesterday, and I think it more important to call attention to:

http://devlinsangle.blogspot.com/2013/08/will-this-mathematics-be-of-any-use.html

Keith has been concerned and outspoken on Twitter about the whole NSA/Edward Snowden affair since its inception… so much so that I interviewed him on that very topic for my MathTango blog awhile back (I thank Keith for linking to that interview at the end of the above piece, but I really think his own blog post transmits even more of the passion I was trying to draw out in my interview with him). Can't help but wonder what, if any, feedback Dr. Devlin has gotten back from his mathematician peers on his strongly-stated views… at any rate, at the beginning of the above piece, in direct reference to what he sees as "illegal NSA surveillance," he urges that "none of us in mathematics and mathematics education can ignore that debate."

A couple of excerpts that capture some of the essence he is communicating:
"The rise of math-based corporations such as Google that form a large and influential part of today’s global world, and the closely related growth of the modern, math-driven security state, as iconicized by the NSA, make it impossible to maintain any longer the fiction (for such it always was) that we can pursue mathematics as a pure activity, separate from applications, be they good or ill."

"As the Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin eventually discovered, 'Do no evil' is a wonderful grounding principle, but the power of mathematics renders it an impossible goal to achieve. The best we can do is try to make our voice heard, as many mathematicians and nuclear physicists did during the Cold War, who spoke publicly about the massive scale of the danger raised by nuclear weapons.
"Finding out (as I have over the past few weeks) that the work I’d done over the past twelve years – for various branches of the U.S. government (intelligence and military) and for commercial enterprises (in my case, the video game industry) – was part of a body of research that had been subverted (as I see it) to create a massive global surveillance framework, I felt I could not remain silent."
I know some folks are already tired of this ongoing story, or otherwise set in their opinion, but I'd still urge you to read Keith's whole piece which isn't overly long.



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