...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

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"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Friday, June 15, 2018

Friday Potpourri


While the Appeaser-and-Chief was working out a few details for a new Trump Tower Pyongyang, I compiled another weekly collection of math bits:

1)  A potpourri within a potpourri… the latest Carnival of Mathematics blog carnival is out:

2)  A recent video interview with Ed Frenkel:

3)  Math, science, engineering… and origami (via Erik Dermaine):

4)  Brief interview with Eli Maor, author of “Music By the Numbers”:

5)  “Statistics — the Rules of the Game”:

6)  Just a little quickie commentary about commentary (…and causation):

7)  The Mediterranean Diet, clinical studies, randomization, oh my…:

8)  Economist Gary Smith, who I interviewed last week, has a new column for Marketwatch on the probability of a good company becoming a great company… and, the Feynman trap:

10)  Meanwhile, early in week I was enamored of Jim Holt:

…Potpourri BONUS! (extra NON-mathematical links of interest): 

1)  Physicist Frank Wilczek with Krista Tippett on “On Being”:

2)  Just what we all need at the end of a long week, more street posters:
https://www.thepoke.co.uk/2013/05/03/30-amazing-street-posters/




Sunday, June 10, 2018

Gary Smith.... Teaching In the Classroom and Beyond


Math-Frolic Interview #44



"Ronald Coase cynically observed that, 'If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.' Standard Deviations is an exploration of dozens of examples of tortuous assertions that, with even a moment's reflection, don't pass the smell test. Sometimes, the unscrupulous deliberately try to mislead us. Other times, the well-intentioned are blissfully unaware of the mischief they are committing. My intention in writing this book is to help protect us from errors -- both external and self-inflicted. You will learn simple guidelines for recognizing bull when you see it -- or say it. Not only do others use data to fool us, we often fool ourselves."
-- from the Introduction to Standard Deviations by Gary Smith


Gary N. Smith is an award-winning Professor of Economics at Pomona College in California (...which happens to be my wonderful alma mater — and though he’s been there 37 years, I graduated before he arrived, so we never crossed paths).
He’s also the author of several popular books. “Standard Deviations” is one of my favorite takes on statistics that everyone should know about.  He followed that up with “What The Luck,” a similarly entertaining, engaging volume on probabilities in major parts of our lives. And I also enjoyed his very readable and instructive “Money Machine,” a great introduction to the sort of “value investing” I believe in and wish I had started earlier in life!  Later this year he’ll be out with “The AI Delusion,” more on that below.
If you’ve missed any of his books you should check them out…

And now a little more:

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1)  Tell us a little about your background and the path that led to your interests in economics and statistics?

Way back when (in junior high school?), I became fascinated with mathematical puzzles, including several of Martin Gardner’s books, such as The Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions and Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. I went to Harvey Mudd College, here in California, and I majored in math, but I was also on the debate team and the national topic my freshman year was, “Resolved that the federal government should establish a national program of public works for the unemployed.” I was drawn to economics for the same reasons that attracted many economists, including James Tobin, who would become one of my mentors when I went to graduate school at Yale:
"I [Tobin] studied economics and made it my career for two reasons. The subject was and is intellectually fascinating and challenging, particularly to someone with taste and talent for theoretical reasoning and quantitative analysis. At the same time it offered the hope, as it still does, that improved understanding could better the lot of mankind."

After earning my PhD in economics at Yale, I accepted a job there as an assistant professor, initially teaching statistics and macroeconomics. Then the Yale economics department asked students what courses they would like added to the curriculum and the runaway winners were Marx and the stock market. I wasn’t interested in Marx, but James Tobin was the chair of my thesis committee and would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, in part for his analysis of financial markets. So, I volunteered to create a stock market course. I loved it because of the wonderful combination of mathematical theories, empirical data, and real world relevance. My main interests today are statistics and finance.

2)  When I thought about interviewing you and clicked on your webpage I discovered you have a brand new book on the way later this year, “The AI Delusion,” so go ahead and tell us about that. I assume from the title you feel a lot of what we hear/read about AI is overhyped? 
p.s., just curious too, have you ever ridden in a driverless car?

I have not yet ridden in a driverless car.
A few years ago, I wrote Standard Deviations: Flawed Assumptions, Tortured Data, and Other Ways to Lie With Statistics, which is a compilation of examples of statistical errors and mischief that I collected over the years. Recently, a lot of these errors and mischief come from data mining—ransacking data for statistical patterns, without being guided or constrained by any coherent theory. Big data and powerful computers have made the problem much worse because they make the data mining so easy.
For example, back in 2008, Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, wrote an article with the provocative title, “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete.” Anderson argued that,
"With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves…. The new availability of huge amounts of data, along with the statistical tools to crunch these numbers, offers a whole new way of understanding the world. Correlation supersedes causation, and science can advance even without coherent models, unified theories, or really any mechanistic explanation at all."

That is a dangerous argument. Too many people think that computers are smarter than humans and should therefore be trusted to make important decisions for us based on statistical patterns unearthed by ransacking data. For example, courts all over the country are using computer models to make bail, prison-sentence, and parole decisions based on statistical patterns that may be merely coincidental, but cannot be evaluated because they are hidden inside black boxes.
The truth is that, while computer algorithms are great and getting better, they are still designed to have the very narrow capabilities needed to perform well-defined chores, not the general intelligence needed to deal with unfamiliar situations by assessing what is happening, why it is happening, and what the consequences are of taking action.
Artificial intelligence is not at all like the real intelligence that comes from human brains. Computers do not know what words mean because computers do not experience the world the way we do. They do not even know what the real world is. Computers do not have the common sense or wisdom that humans accumulate by living life. Computers have no way of judging whether the patterns they discover are meaningful or meaningless, and when the algorithms are inside black boxes, no one knows.

3)  Since you're an economist and a statistician I’m curious if there are any specific economists and statisticians you would especially recommend for mathematically-inclined readers to follow on the internet (on blogs, websites, Twitter, Facebook, wherever)?

Nate Silver and Andrew Gelman are reliably interesting.

Also, besides your books do you have Web-accessible pieces you would recommend to readers wanting to get a taste of your own work?

I write regularly for MarketWatch and RealClearMarkets. Here is one column on black-box investment algorithms, and one on Bitcoin .

4)  In some places I see a push in secondary education for some sort of statistics and data science course to be a required part of the math curriculum (probably replacing one of the currently-mandated math offerings). Do you have any thoughts on that?

I was a math major, I love math, and I use math and write computer programs for almost all my academic research, but I think that a basic understanding of statistics and data science are more useful and relevant for most citizens. Understanding the difference between good data and bad data, the nature and limitations of statistical inference, and the dangers of data mining are essential.

5)  When you’re not trying to raise math and financial literacy in this country ;) what are some of your other main interests/hobbies/activities?

I used to play soccer, squash, and all sorts of sports but I had to have knee replacement surgery a year ago. Now I’m mainly trying to be a good husband and father.

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Thanks Gary, I've never before interviewed either an economist or a Fighting Sagehen (Pomona mascot) here, so thanks for two firsts! ;)
[In retrospect, I'm only sorry that you weren't the 47th interview here (...inside joke)]
And again, Gary's books are fun... AND timely reads if you're not already familiar with them.




Friday, June 8, 2018

Mathy Things You May Have Missed


After pardoning myself for all the things I’ve said, or will in the future say (or think or whisper) about our dysfunctional (to put it kindly) President, I proceeded to compile another weekly math potpourri:

1)  Eli Maor on math & music:

2)  Fermat primes and almost Fermat primes:

3)  Michael Harris on Peter Scholze and more:

4)  John Golden recommends these calculus videos from Paula Krieg as “beyond fabulous… beautiful and ingenious”!:

5)  Biking, mathematics, and Keith Devlin collide:

6)  An interesting tweet and some followup comments (on coincidences & math):
https://twitter.com/Stevehinds57/status/1004410900168740864

7)  Peter Woit reviews Sabine Hossenfelder's new (physics) book, "Lost In Math" here:
http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=10314

...also reviewed in Science magazine this week:
http://blogs.sciencemag.org/books/2018/06/04/lost-in-math/

8)  Meanwhile, this week I had fun rambling around from language & gender HERE, to a couple of books HERE, and about cartoons and humor HERE.


…Potpourri BONUS! (extra NON-mathematical links of interest): 

1)  A tweet (and comments) that may contain some interesting links:

2)   Reporting on a conference on consciousness:
https://www.chronicle.com/article/is-this-the-world-s-most/243599




Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Two Volumes….





My favorite form of writing (to read) is the essay. Books on single themes, no matter how well-written, invariably lapse into sections or passages that are redundant, plodding, or pedantic. The essay form is brief enough to be rich and scintillating from beginning to end, in the hands of a good craftsman. 
All this to say, that even though it’s only June I think I have already found my favorite book-of-the-year in Jim Holt’s “When Einstein Walked with Gödel,” a compendium of 20-years’-worth of Holt essays. I don’t expect anything I see the rest of the year (though I could be wrong) to surpass the joy I’m getting from these beautiful pieces on physics, philosophy, culture, and abundant math. At 3/4 of the way through there hasn’t been a bad, boring, or weak essay yet, nor expected in the final 1/4. I’ve been marking my very favorite essays as I go along, but so many are now thusly-marked it’s not even worth noting them all. Wonderful descriptions of and anecdotes about great figures in the history of math/science; wonderful discussion of debates/controversies in the scientific/philosophical realm; wonderful, thought-provoking, often novel, commentaries and overviews. I’ve already touted this volume in various places, and can’t recommend it enough; readable and enjoyable by professionals and laypersons alike. 

Here are some more formal review links:
…and also a review and interview with Holt here:

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Received an uncorrected review copy of Eugenia Cheng’s forthcoming (September?), “The Art of Logic In an Illogical World” awhile back. It’s Dr. Cheng’s third book and again an attempt to present somewhat abstract topics (previously category theory and infinity) to a general audience. Oddly, in each instance I’ve enjoyed one half of each of her books better than the other half; in this case it was the second half I enjoyed most — I won’t dwell on that, since your ‘mileage may vary,’ but mention it just so you know that if the first half doesn’t grab you, persevere, and the second half may be more rewarding.

Dr. Cheng’s topic this go-around is very timely and important, as it has to do with how people think, reason, form opinions, argue, etc. in this highly-polarized world we inhabit. Important to note that there is very little technical logic/symbolism in the volume, even when she is discussing elements of formal logic. Her tone/presentation is much more informal/casual, almost conversational — that has always been her writing style as she strives to reach a broad audience. In fact I would almost say that the title of the book could equally well be “The Art of Common Sense” because she is dealing with logic in such an informal, introductory way that it will often seem like just formalized common sense.
One of the main strengths of the book is that she employs very current issues or examples (often related to equality or feminism)  to illustrate her points throughout, making what could have been abstract or stodgy material, rather more pertinent and interesting.

Early in the book Dr. Cheng notes that she has sometimes been described as “pedantic” for her previous writing, and I think that is a fair warning of how some will view passages here as well (again, more-so the first half of the book). But then she consistently takes on subjects (like category theory, infinity, and now logic) that lend themselves to pedantry (despite her constant attempt at casualness… which I find a bit annoying at times, but may well appeal to her intended audience).

Dr. Cheng’s enthusiasm for her topics is unmistakeable; she already has a large fan-base and 3 books (and many articles and videos) under her belt — each of those volumes are good, but I suspect the most excellent works from this energetic, relatively young writer are yet to come, as she endeavors to spread the good news of mathematics AND logical thinking far and wide.



Friday, June 1, 2018

New Month, New Potpourri


Just for a change this week I won’t open with any insults whatsoever of our Knuckledragger-and-Chief pseudo-leader… but simply go straight to the latest Friday potpourri:

1)  YOU too can take a Harvard “Introduction to Probability” course:

2)  H/T to Steve Strogatz for passing along this somewhat interesting useful page of lists:

3)  IBM’s Watson early on received a LOT of positive hype for its healthcare successes and promise… not so much lately though:

4)  Gelman on the problem of “noisy” studies:

5)  A great little piece (and puzzle) on the complexity of causation (assuming such a thing even exists!):

7)  And hey, soon there may be a half-dozen-or-so academic journal papers on the “cold-hand” phenomena in basketball:

8)  Managing a house or a classroom Fawn Nguyen knows what to do (…or at least has an opinion ;)
http://fawnnguyen.com/house-cleaning-and-lesson-planning/

9)  Videos from the recent Abel Lectures honoring Robert Langlands here:
http://www.abelprize.no/artikkel/vis.html?tid=73149

10)  Fresh off the press, Evelyn Lamb's June TinyLetter:
https://tinyletter.com/evelynjlamb/letters/stuff-evelyn-wants-you-to-read-17

11)  Need more?... plenty additional from the 117th Math Teachers At Play blog carnival:
http://mathhombre.blogspot.com/2018/06/math-teachers-at-play-117.html

...that all should hold you 'til next Friday.

sidenote:  if you're not already following @BenOrlin on Twitter, well, you should be -- as he might say, his feed is worth the price of admission... he's been on fire recently (and somehow found time to write a book too), 

…Potpourri BONUS! (extra NON-mathematical links of interest): 

1)  TED Radio Hour last week was on the battle for our attention in the digital age:

2)  Relatedly, I never have time for all the podcasts I want to hear, but one I’ll pass along, for any not familiar with it, is Julia Galef’s “Rationally Speaking”: