Monday, February 22, 2010


Geez my reading habits have fallen off a cliff in the last six months. That tends to happen when involved in research, the all-consuming activity that crowds out everything else that might fill up the little gaps of time throughout the day. (In NY, having a job I hated had the opposite, escapist effect. I guess there are trade-offs in everything.)

1984, by George Orwell
- Got bored with this in 8th grade and didn't finish (didn't finish much fiction at all back then), but it's one of those books that's embarrassing not to have read. I was surprised how fantastical it was. Orwell was obviously at least as inclined to invent worlds as he was to comment on politics. It went too over the top for me to be able to take it seriously but obviously it was more impactful at the time it was written (and probably still more important to maintain in the collective consciousness than I'd like to believe.)

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens - This was just great the whole way through, and hilarious. This guy knows an unbelievable amount about the history and text of the major religions so it was also unexpectedly interesting and fresh. His recount of the founding of Mormonism and many other minor incidents of blatant religious fraud, is particularly entertaining.

Discovery: A Memoir, by Vernon Smith - I never expected to like a memoir, and didn't expect this book to be as memoir-ish as it actually was, but I really enjoyed it nonetheless. Vernon Smith may be my favorite economist. His life story is intertwined with his intellectual journey and to read that in a narrative form is very fascinating. Of course it helps that he comes from my neck of the woods and also loves the outdoors and went to the same University as me and has that lovable midwestern anti-snootiness and an entire worldview I agree with...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

thinking in math

Last week an artist asked me what exactly I meant when I said I "see the world in math**," something her husband apparently also says but can't explain. I tried to explain but I can't really comprehend any other way of thinking (it's just very obvious from some conversations that it's not universal...) so the best I could do was more of an answer to how to think like an economist (automatically fitting observations into formulaic incentive-driven laws of behavior and nature, etc).

But this article reminded me what the real difference is. To people who see the world in math, they see things in terms of mathematical concepts. To people who... I dunno what the opposite would be, understanding poetry?... math is a mechanical set of tools of manipulation to get some particular answer. Fractions and decimals and percentages are different things entirely with complicated rules for converting between them, not different ways of representing the same thing that vary only by convenience. Algebra involves manipulating symbols according to particular sets of permitted actions, not logical deduction. Cross-multiplication is a magical trick to figure out which fraction is bigger, not a trivial consequence of multiplication. FOIL is a rule you have to memorize when you learn polynomials, not a meaninglessly particular application of the distributive property. Quadratic equations are impossible to solve unless you have the formula memorized, not something you can logically derive as needed, just like every other expression that doesn't happen to fit the quadratic mold.

And the product of this type of thinking is the endless discussion in the comments of the article above, which makes my brain hurt by its insanity/inanity much more than division ever did (and makes me giggle a lot.)

I'm so out of touch with the mechanical way of thinking about math that I completely forgot that I ever learned how to manipulate fractions into decimals and into percentages until I visited my 4th grade teacher in college when she was giving that lesson and it blew my mind to watch her break the concept into so many separate mechanical pieces (yes this and many other reasons add up to me being a very horrible teacher when the day comes that I can no longer avoid it...) Sure, part of it is just the curse of knowledge, and I can't remember what it as like not to know how to solve equations, but mostly it's the difference between seeing a logical flow and seeing miscellaneous puzzle pieces with memorizable, disconnected algorithms for assembly.

Anyway, I don't mean to make it a point of conceit, but frankly the point of this post is that for those of us who see the world in math (which in any case is about everyone who will ever read this...) the fact that the New York Times can run a piece elaborating a fourth grade arithmetic lesson that was trivial to begin with is hilarious, mind-boggling, etc. I laughed a lot and wanted to share =)

**Which was actually just my way of saying I was baffled by her occupation and incapable of making conversation about it, so please have mercy and enlighten me or change the subject. When it comes to art and literature and all that I'm as intellectually disabled as the Verizon call representative who insisted that .02 cents per minute was a meaningless, impossible quantity...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

post-rapture pet care

*giggle* the post-rapture pet care business is in the news again. I like Steven Landsburg's comment on it best:
"There are roughly 30 million [self-professed Christians who expect the Second Coming and the Rapture in their lifetimes] in the United States. How many of them really believe what they say they do? New evidence suggests that the number is somewhere around 100. Either that or fundamentalism breeds exceptional callousness toward ones’ pets"
I love my cats and trust that if I vanished tomorrow, my friends and family would take care of them. But if I believed everyone I knew and loved would vanish with me, 92 cents a month would be a perfectly reasonable price to pay for their insurance!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

lovable libertarians

Libertarians (especially with a capital L) have a bad reputation for negativity and disregard for the less fortunate and insane moralistic seething opposition to anything having to do with government.

There's an element of truth to that, tragically, but it's not universal. First of all, pragmatic (as opposed to moralistic, Ayn Rand types) libertarians aren't nearly so virulent or berserk about their reasoning. That doesn't help the stereotype much since these people rarely call themselves libertarian, but that's what most independents and New England conservatives are when you come down to it. Nonetheless, while not considered untouchable, they still aren't associated with teddy bears and rainbows. A bit... severe, maybe. School marm-y.

But really, we should be considered more rainbow-like! I'm libertarian because I have faith in the human spirit and the ability and desire to meet the standards that are set for them. I don't want to get in the way of amazing people doing amazing things, and in fact I think we should culturally expect that kind of drive and personal responsibility and creativity and looking out for yourself and your loves ones. And, I have faith in human compassion and the tendency to rally around those who've had unavoidable catastrophic bad luck. I would rather rely on people to fix those things than give them the cop out option of relying on the cold, heartless, bureaucratic government to do it.

The world is just a more beautiful place when people set high standards for themselves that they have the freedom to pursue. And that's the kind of pie in the sky idealism that honestly drives my libertarianism (ok and the fact that I hate being told what to do...)

I think I tend to sound much more cynical and snarky in writing than I really am (it's the easiest form of humor, and the most tempting subject matter). But I'd really like avoid that and to promote a happier face of the libertarian movement. Garrison Keillor meets Vernon Smith. A slightly more down-home smiling version of David Brooks. You see what I mean.

Monday, February 1, 2010

I'm a space nut but...

I'm not disappointed by Obama's cancellation of the Ares rocket development and plans to return to the moon and go from there to Mars.

This post explains mostly why. It's "over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation", as Obama puts it. Private ventures promise to be much more innovative, cheap, and most importantly in argument against pro-NASA rhetoric, exciting.

Additionally, I'm biased in favor of cosmology rather than planetary science. With one telescope for a couple hundred million dollars in Hawaii or in orbit, we can learn about the entire structure and evolution of the universe. With a hundred BILLION dollars, we can repeat something already accomplished 40 years ago and get a slightly more detailed analysis of one or two tiny little rocks in one solar system in one galaxy.

Maybe those rocks are potentially more useful than learning about superclusters of galaxies, but, well, I majored in math; I obviously care more about what's interesting than what's useful. And in any case, that's all the more reason to do the planetary science privately. The reason to publicly fund the space program is because it's worth doing but either too expensive to be done privately* or too useless to be done privately. This is still true for cosmology (useless) but not planetary exploration (much cheaper than it used to be, and useful.)

*I definitely don't want to encourage the misperception that NASA is a huge part of the Federal budget though. It's tiny. As is foreign aid. For some reason, Americans think we spend much more on both of those things than we really do.