Monday, December 30, 2019

Yes or No

Been reading a review copy of a wonderful new book (due out in March) by Matt Cook from MIT Press, entitled “Sleight of Mind,” all about one of my favorite topics… paradoxes. It’s chockfull of them, and I’ll do a fuller review closer to the publication date, but will entice you with just a few fun, simple one-sentence logic puzzles (variations of the “liar paradox”) that appear near the start of one section of the volume:
“Answer truthfully, yes or no: Is ‘no’ the correct answer to this question?" 
“Now answer this one truthfully: Is ‘yes’ the correct answer to this question?” 
“What about, ‘Does this question have an answer?”
…and I’ll leave you to contemplate these on your own. 
(but essentially, for one of them neither answer works, for one of them both answers work, and for one of them only one answer fits).

Monday, December 23, 2019

Bye Bye Bayes…

One tidbit I found especially interesting/surprising (and had never heard about) from David Spiegelhalter’s current “The Art of Statistics” volume, is that Bayes' Theorem or Bayesian inference/reasoning has been banned in British courts… yeah, you read that right Nate Silver, BANNED in court! ;)  As if statistics weren’t confused and misused enough by lawyers, one of the most common and vaunted modern approaches to probability isn’t even allowed, and this decision goes back at least 8 years.

Here are a few of the links that talk about the decision:

If any of our friends from across the pond can tell us more about how much controversy or debate this prohibition has produced in UK (or is it 'settled law' at this point?) I’d be curious to hear.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Calming Canine ASMR

With the House impeachment vote looming in a few days perhaps I should squeeze in another relaxing ASMR clip before the never-ending Republican bullsh*t hits the proverbial fan & airwaves... 
Did an earlier ASMR with a feline, so here's one with Simba, a big, gorgeous Shetland Sheepdog... enjoy:

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Of Ed Witten and Donald Trump

Just a little clash of thoughts in my mind recently….

By chance I’ve read several books/articles lately where Ed Witten’s name pops up; always of course in glowing terms, i.e., ‘the most brilliant scientist of our time,’ ‘the most important thinker alive,’ ‘the greatest living theorist,’ etc. Indeed, many of the other leading thinkers of our time admit that Witten is a person with ideas they can barely comprehend or keep up with. He is a mathematical physicist (and a Fields Medalist, among many awards), and I won’t even try to offer a bio or synopsis of him here (other than to say he and I were born in the same year, after which our lives diverged considerably ;) — most readers no doubt know basically who he is.

But what struck me in seeing his name so much recently, is that most Americans (outside the astute readers of this blog of course ;)) likely have no idea who Ed Witten is — his name would be largely unknown I bet to 90++% of all literate Americans. 
I suspect, in his day, and certainly now, the name “Albert Einstein” was known to most all Americans. Even names like Heisenberg, Bohr, and others probably are somewhat recognizable to a majority of again literate Americans. Late in life, and especially following his death, “Richard Feynman” became very well-recognized among masses of American citizens. And of course there's Stephen Hawking too. Yet this current ‘most brilliant man alive’ exists somewhat in virtual obscurity outside of the scientific community that reveres him. 
I’m not someone who thinks we should place individuals on pedestals (in fact I dislike the practice of building monuments/statues to individuals, or even naming buildings/streets after them, etc.), but I do wish our education system and press made citizens more aware of such major contributors to our knowledge and progress. I can’t help but think what a splendidly better country this would be if more of the electorate knew the name “Ed Witten” than knew the name “Kim Kardashian.” We might even then be a nation that would not elect (more tragically than laughably) an incompetent, authoritarian demagogue to the highest post of the land… and take 3 damn shattering years to impeach his autocratic ass. ...ehh, just some idle thoughts for this Tuesday. ;)

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Sunday Illusion

OK, for your Sunday entertainment and perspicacious pondering I’ll pass along this optical illusion that seems to be making the rounds — it’s somewhat cool, and I didn’t recall seeing it before:

It works better for some folks than for others, and there are actually multiple ways to make it work besides the “breathing” routine. Despite being passed around a lot right now, when I tried to learn more about it I found it went back to at least 2015, but still haven’t found the originator or precise explanation for how it works. In fact, for something that’s been out there for at least 4 years I’m surprised how little I could find about it on the Web. Maybe the best explanation (and still not all that incisive or neurologically revealing) is this comment placed on one site:
“The dots aren't moving. There are two sets of dots in alternating points around the circle, and they're flashing between the two sets. The illusion of movement comes from the suggestion to the viewer that the dots are moving, resulting in subconsciously following in the chosen direction.”
Anyway, if you know more about it feel free to elucidate in the comments below! ;)

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Topping the Math Twitter Feeds

Last Sunday the new monthly ranking of Twitter math feeds (from Kelly Truelove) came out with polymath Eric Weinstein leading the pack,** which rather surprised me (though it seems based solely on total number of followers) -- I don't recall if he'd been in the listings in recent prior months. Eric is trained in math, economics, physics, but more recently is known best as a central member of the so-called "Intellectual Dark Web," and doesn't actually tweet much about mathematics.
Moreover, while I generally enjoy Eric in long form (where he often stresses depth and nuance and clarity, in addition to being provocative), I find his Twitter feed far more annoying/irritating (and lacking in depth/nuance/clarity!).
Meanwhile, he appears on many podcasts these days, including his own relatively new one, "The Portal," and in a bit of synchronicity within hours of noticing the Twitter rankings, I discovered his latest (~hour-long) Portal episode focuses on some esoteric aspects of math (and physics and art), not often talked about, with mathematical artist London Tsai (it starts off a bit slow, but begins building at around the 5 minute point):
(this is just audio; video version will likely be up on YouTube at some point)

Here's a (completely separate) clip I've used before of Weinstein talking to Joe Rogan about the octonions (and more):

...Speaking of math podcasts, Numberphile has been doing a great irregular series of them (interviewing various individuals), that you should check out if you haven't already done so:

** interestingly, on a separate page, the listings show an individual's "public" vs. peer group ranking, and while Eric was #1 in the public sphere he was only #95 among "peers," which makes a bit more sense.
And who, you might wonder ranked #1 among math Twitter peers....
Evelyn Lamb! (no. 10 on list)

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Books… Closing Out 2019 with some Faves

Popular math volumes continued to flourish in 2019 (or 'Year 3 of the Trumpocalypse' as it is otherwise known), and I'll just mention a few faves in this year-end wrap-up for ye merry holiday shopping....

My actual favorite read of 2019 isn’t even eligible to be my “book-of-the-year” pick… because it was published in 2006! I’ve mentioned briefly before that I thoroughly enjoyed John Derbyshire’s 2006 account of algebra, “Unknown Quantity” that I picked up perchance for a buck at a used book sale; perhaps the best, most accessible introduction to a lot of modern algebra that I’ve ever seen. 

OK, onward though to the 2019 volume-of-the-year:
Despite my better judgment, my intentions not to let it happen, and my visceral internal sense of justice in the Universe… Ben Orlin has friggin’ done it again! For the second year in a row Ben takes the prize, this time for his “Change Is the Only Constant.” Ben must now promise NOT to write a book in 2020 just to give some piker like Keith Devlin, Ian Stewart, or Marcus du Sautoy a fighting chance next year. So if you’re reading this Ben, just slowly, gently put that pen down, amble off, slink into hiding for one year (maybe play some pickleball), and there need be no trouble, OK? Hope to see you again in 2021!

No one book shot to the top of my list as in some prior years, but in the end Ben won out for a couple of reasons:

1)  the uniqueness and consistency of his writing/humor/wit… something I’ve not encountered in 50+ years of reading popular math (I mean Jordan Ellenberg is funny, but not funny every 23 seconds like Ben — and now I want to know if Ben is this funny when he’s changing his daughter’s diapers... or is he, at that point, merely mentally calculating fluid dynamics?). 

2)  I loved the last 6 chapters (out of 27 chapters) of this book. The first 2/3 of the volume were fun, but also a bit disjointed or choppy, and I didn’t initially think it would be book-of-the-year... until he totally won me over with those 6 final chapters, touching on some of my favorite topics in his inimitable way.

By the way, a fine recent transcribed interview with Ben about his book, here:
…AND a great recent wide-ranging podcast interview with him here:

So much for numero uno; plenty of other good books this year, including these: 

Infinite Powers  -- Steven Strogatz’s deservedly-lauded volume bringing the realm of calculus to the masses

Mind and Matter  — John Urschel’s quite different autobiography of his unusual career combining mathematics and football

Tales of Impossibility  — Dave Richeson’s creative, distinctive compendium of interesting math history centered on classic impossible problems

The Art of Statistics  — David Spiegelhalter  ...good introduction to statistics for a general audience from a leading British practitioner (this may well be my 2nd-place fave book of the year, though it does require some initial interest in stats to enjoy)

The Best Writing In Mathematics 2019 — Mircea Pitici another great, diverse volume from Pitici with a lot on problems, puzzles, and proofs this year, but with philosophy and history thrown in as well
[also, worth remembering that this book lists MANY other worthwhile volumes and readings from 2018/2019]

The Doomsday Calculation  — William Poundstone’s quirky volume largely on Bayesian probability, but touching upon various other interesting topics as well

The 9 Pitfalls of Data Science — Gary Smith ...from Oxford University Press and not well-distributed, but one of many recent, entertaining popular volumes on the problems with much-heralded ‘big data'

The Universe Speaks In Numbers   — Graham Farmelo  ...I wasn’t as enamored of this volume as many others were, but certainly worth a mention

Several other books look interesting, but don’t know if/when I’ll find time to read (the Parker & Eastaway volumes are British-published, and for reasons that escape me, take their lazy, %#(@&!!ing, convolutedly-sweet time to even show up in the U.S.):

Calculus Reordered   — David Bressoud
Calculus Simplified — Oscar Fernandez ( least the third calculus-focused book for a
                                        general audience from Fernandez in recent years)
Do Dice Play God?  — Ian Stewart 
Humble Pi   — Matt Parker
Limitless Mind  — Jo Boaler
Mathematics For Human Flourishing  -- Francis Su
Math Recess  — Sunil Singh
Maths On the Back of an Envelope  — Rob Eastaway
Proof  — Amir Alexander 
Feel free to mention your own favorites from the year in the comments (especially ones I've left out), including more technical works you also think deserve attention.
Additionally, there were several books aimed specifically at math teachers that I haven't had the chance/time to see, but are probably worth knowing about if you are a teacher.