Wednesday, October 29, 2014
From recognizing speech to identifying unusual stars, new discoveries often begin with comparison of data streams to find connections and spot outliers. But simply feeding raw data into a data-analysis algorithm is unlikely to produce meaningful results, say the authors of a new Cornell study. That’s because most data comparison algorithms today have one major weakness: somewhere, they rely on a human expert to specify what aspects of the data are relevant for comparison, and what aspects aren’t. But these experts can’t keep up with the growing amounts and complexities of big data. So the Cornell computing researchers have come up with a new principle they call “data smashing” for estimating the similarities between streams of arbitrary data without human intervention, and even without access to the data sources.
How ‘data smashing’ works
Data smashing is based on a new way to compare data streams. The process involves two steps.
- The data streams are algorithmically “smashed” to “annihilate” the information in each other.
- The process measures what information remains after the collision. The more information remains, the less likely the streams originated in the same source.
Data-smashing principles could open the door to understanding increasingly complex observations, especially when experts don’t know what to look for, according to the researchers.
A Ball Rolls on a Point
The whole ball
of who we are
the green baize
of a single tiny
spot. A aural
track of crackle
betrays our passage
it's hot and
spring out of it.
The pressure is
intense and the
sense that we've
As though bringing
too much to bear
too locally were
Victoria Law in Jacobin (image “Prison Blueprints.” Remeike Forbes/Jacobin):
Casting policing and prisons as the solution to domestic violence both justifies increases to police and prison budgets and diverts attention from the cuts to programs that enable survivors to escape, such as shelters, public housing, and welfare. And finally, positioning police and prisons as the principal antidote discourages seeking other responses, including community interventions and long-term organizing.
How did we get to this point? In previous decades, police frequently responded to domestic violence calls by telling the abuser to cool off, then leaving. In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist activists filed lawsuits against police departments for their lack of response. In New York, Oakland, and Connecticut, lawsuits resulted in substantial changes to how the police handled domestic violence calls, including reducing their ability to not arrest.
Included in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill in US history, VAWA was an extension of these previous efforts. The $30 billion legislation provided funding for one hundred thousand new police officers and $9.7 billion for prisons. When second-wave feminists proclaimed “the personal is the political,” they redefined private spheres like the household as legitimate objects of political debate. But VAWA signaled that this potentially radical proposition had taken on a carceral hue.
At the same time, politicians and many others who pushed for VAWA ignored the economic limitations that prevented scores of women from leaving violent relationships.
Keith Doubt on Eric Gordy's Guilt, Responsibility, and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post-Milošević Serbia, in Berfrois (Belgrade, Serbia. Photograph by Jamie Silva):
The intellectual integrity of cultural anthropology is based largely on its commitment to cultural relativism as a principled notion. Cultural relativism is the principle from which the discipline achieves its sense of empirical objectivity. Cultural differences are cherished as just that, cultural differences. No difference is stipulated as superior or inferior, better or worse. The commitment guards against ethnocentric judgments, colonizing prejudices, and, worst of all, grand theorizing with metaphysical pretense. This ethos in the discipline of cultural anthropology guides the recent book by Eric Gordy titled, Guilt, Responsibility, and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post-Milošević Serbia.
While cultural initiatives rarely investigate and never sentence, they offer some of the keys to understanding that have been missing from political legal projects: the ability to hear and identify with the lived experiences of individuals, a route to engagement that participants in the public can understand, and openness to interpretation that constitutes an invitation to dialogue. (p. 179)
There is a contrasting notion in the social sciences to the principle of cultural relativism, namely, the assumption that social science has a valid knowledge-base and ethical responsibility from which to demonstrate how some societies are healthier than others and how some social structures are better for community life. Social science depicts certain normative orientations and collective sentiments as more functional for the vitality of human life and sociability. For example, human rights scholars assume that a genuine respect for the principle of human rights is good: good for people in society, good for their communities, and good for their governments. Gordy understands this perspective but recognizes its unintended consequences, given his political knowledge of what Max Weber calls the ethical irrationality of the world in his famous lecture, “Politics as a Vocation.” In politics, it is necessary to employ force in realizing one’s values. When, however, force is employed, no matter how good the intentions behind the use of force, bad results follow or evil consequences occur. Weber calls this the ethical irrationality of the world which is the reason for the sense of disenchantment that characterizes the spirit of the modern world. In politics, actions whose motives are seemingly good can lead to bad results. The reverse is also true; actions whose motives are seemingly bad can lead to good results. Weber calls this the paradox of consequences, an ever-repeating empirical and historical pattern, and Gordy understands this matter well. There is a hubris that informs the forceful use of law and legal process at both the national and the international level, and Gordy wants to debunk this hubris that guides international interventions in societies experiencing conflict and social violence.
To introduce the structure of his book, Gordy writes, “the ordering of the chapters is meant to lead readers through the logic that brought the study from apparently clear and relatively simple moral questions to greater complexity and uncertainty, and to an insistence on the importance of the cultural and social context” (p. xv). After relatively simple moral questions implode upon themselves when confronted with empirical scrutiny and historical accounts, the significance of cultural variables within their own milieu and within their own historical context assume their rightful place.
Over at The Physics arXiv Blog:
Taleb and co begin by making a clear distinction between risks with consequences that are local and those with consequences that have the potential to cause global ruin. When global harm is possible, an action must be avoided unless there is scientific near-certainty that it is safe. This approach is known as the precautionary principle.
The question, of course, is when the precautionary principle should be applied. Taleb and co begin by saying that their aim is to place the precautionary principle within a formal statistical structure that is grounded in probability theory and the properties of complex systems. “Our aim is to allow decision-makers to discern which circumstances require the use of the precautionary principle and in which cases evoking the precautionary principle is inappropriate.”
Their argument begins by dividing potential harm into two types. The first is localised and non-spreading. The second is propagating harm that results in irreversible and widespread damage. Taleb and co say that traditional decision-making strategies focus on the first type of risk where the harm is localised and the risk is easy to calculate from past data.
In this case, it is always possible to make a mistake when decision-making about risk. The crucial point is that when the harm is localised, the potential danger from a miscalculation is bounded.
By contrast, harm that is able to propagate on a global scale is entirely different. “The possibility of irreversible and widespread damage raises different questions about the nature of decision-making and what risks can be reasonably taken,” say Taleb and co. In this case, the potential danger from a miscalculation can be essentially infinite. It is in this category of total ruin problems that the precautionary principle comes into play, they say.
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Jonathan Rée in Prospect:
Every October for the past 13 years, the Oxford Lieder Festival has been bringing classy performances of classical art songs to what used to be a rather unmusical town. I love it: great art taken seriously, mostly in the glorious intimacy of the Holywell Music Room, and without any pomp, artifice or unnecessary formality. But I must say I was rather dismayed when I heard what was planned for this year’s festival, which started a week ago: a complete survey of all the songs that Schubert ever wrote.
Schubert was, of course, the inventor of the classical Liederabend or song recital: the extraordinary musical institution that features nothing but a singer and a pianist, achieving, when all goes well, a thrillingly direct communication with their audience. And apart from inventing the institution, Schubert wrote the classics against which all subsequent efforts are measured—notably Winterreiseand Schöne Müllerin, whose depth, variety, drama, animation and melancholy place them amongst the bare necessities of any possible desert island. But given that Schubert died at the age of 31 (in 1828) and that, apart from inventing the Liederabend, he composed in practically every other genre of classical music, you might think that he could not have written terribly many songs.
Actually he wrote more than 600, so the idea of a three-week festival featuring every single one is perhaps even crazier than you might have thought. A suitable event for anoraks, pub-quizzers and musical train-spotters, perhaps, but why should anyone who cares for the art of singing want to scrape the barrel for hundreds of minor works, rather than remaining with the tried and tested pre-loved masterpieces?
More here. [Thanks to Brooks Riley.]
Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
In the year 1905, Henri Matisse painted a portrait of his wife wearing a rather extraordinary hat. The painting was displayed at the Salon d’Automne in Paris that same year. Much shock and controversy followed. To many, the hat looked like a giant lump of randomly chosen colors sitting atop the poor woman’s head. What, also, was the point of all the green on the woman’s face? People and hats don’t look like that. The world doesn’t look like that.
By 1905, this game of looking at contemporary painting and expressing shock and dismay had been going on for some time. A generation had already passed since Impressionism first scandalized right-thinking art aficionados. In the years just after Impressionism, artists like Gauguin and Van Gogh fully dispatched the idea that color in painting had to correspond to color as we see it in the real world. In 1905, the public should have been ready for Matisse. But something about that portrait by Matisse was extra upsetting, even to a public that was now used to being scandalized by art. The color wasn’t just unexpected; it was jarring, verging on ugly. Critics dubbed Matisse and other painters in the show Fauvists. The word means, literally, wild beasts.
You’d expect the wild beast who painted "Woman with a Hat" (1905) to go even further into brutality and ugliness. Shocking the bourgeoisie is hard work. You’re constantly forced to up the ante.
That’s not what happened with Matisse. He continued to experiment radically with color. But his pictures became gentler as time went on. Matisse brought into his paintings a sense of balance, poise, beauty. By the end of his life, Matisse was making art that was downright pretty. There is no more damning adjective to an avant-garde artist than “pretty.”
John Donoghue and Sheila Nirenberg, computer scientist Michel Maharbiz, and psychologist Gary Marcus discuss the cutting edge of brain-machine interactions
The matter of the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is at once straightforward and immensely complicated. About the man there is no question. Whatever Bonhoeffer’s flaws—and Charles Marsh’s masterly and comprehensive new biography Strange Glory reveals that there were more than is commonly supposed—the witness of his breathtakingly courageous opposition to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich leaves criticism disarmed.1 In the one great challenge of his life, he was magnificent. He behaved the way that the rest of us, in our most hopeful moments, like to imagine we would.
But Bonhoeffer is known to history not simply as a victim of Nazi horror but as a theologian of note. His appeal is startlingly ecumenical: He finds adherents across the Christian spectrum from conservative evangelicals to Lutherans (of various stripes) to liberal Protestants to celebrants of the death of God. Bonhoeffer himself was sympathetic to Catholicism—Karl Barth worried about his “nostalgia for Rome”—and he even came to insist, in Marsh’s words, on “equivalence before God of the church and the synagogue, between the body of Christ and the chosen people of Israel.”
But from such extravagant pluralism, can there be any coherence?
The first photo: a fireman, a woman, and a child wait on the top-floor landing of a fire escape. Smoke purls from the windows behind them. As the gallant-eyed fireman reaches for the approaching rescue ladder, the woman and girl hug one another, their faces wounded by fear. In the second photograph, the fire escape has buckled and detached from the building. The fireman dangles from the ladder while the woman clutches onto his legs, in the postural arrangement of trapeze swingers. The little girl is not anywhere in view. We see in the third photo that the fireman is safely on the ladder, but the woman and little girl are floating, halfway into their fall, arms and legs gravity-splayed. The woman’s expression is eerily serene, as if already resigned to her fate. The final photograph (above) shows the woman and girl suspended in mid-air, like Degas ballerinas; the girl faces the camera with her arms outstretched, her pajama bottoms inflated with the wind of her fall. The woman plummets headfirst, a hideous, limb-tangled descent into oblivion. The woman, a nineteen-year-old named Diana Bryant, died on impact, but her two-year-old goddaughter, Tiare Jones, landed on Bryant’s body and lived.
Originally published in 1975 in the Boston Herald and taken by Stanley Forman, who thought he was merely documenting some gawk-worthy scenes from a heroic rescue, the photographs are so expertly composed and nakedly harrowing that they resemble film stills from a Hollywood blockbuster. And despite its disquieting content, Forman’s work, known simply as “Fire Escape Collapse,” was reprinted in over four hundred U.S. newspapers.
When William Makepeace Thackeray died, near the end of 1863, he left behind a formidable library in a mansion he’d only recently designed, erected, and occupied. A few months later, his home was dismantled and his books were put to auction. On the flyleaves and margins, their new owners discovered a wealth of Thackeray’s sketches, some in pencil and others in pen and ink.
Thackeray’s talents as an artist were no secret—he’d contributed illustrations to many of his own novels, including Vanity Fair—but few were aware of the extent of his doodling habit. More than ten years later, in 1875, the art collector Joseph Grego published Thackerayana, an assemblage of more than six hundred of Thackeray’s drawings with extracts of the books in which he’d drawn them. (Grego, perhaps fearing the consequences of his blatant copyright infringement, presented the collection anonymously.)
What surprises most about the sketches in Thackerayana is their range—Thackeray was an adept caricaturist, but these drawings find him equally at home in more high-flown styles.
Jeremyy Seal in The Telegraph:
It’s no surprise that imperial splendour should so often have been the keynote in published histories of Istanbul, for more than 1,500 years the glittering capital of the Byzantines and latterly that of the Ottomans. But this book tells of the unfamiliar interwar period, perhaps the most humbling era for the world’s one-time greatest metropolis, which necessarily makes it shorter on gilt and glory than it is on pawnshops, penury and the stench of stale wine. It’s a counter-intuitive approach, but one that succeeds brilliantly in portraying the eclipsed city and its often exotic cast of the destitute, the dispossessed and the defiant – prostituted Russian princesses, scheming spies, out-of-work artists, impresarios and arms dealers as well as familiar figures like Leon Trotsky, Kemal Ataturk and Turkey’s national poet Nazim Hikmet – at a time of unparalleled social upheaval. With the Turks’ defeat in the First World War, Allied forces occupied Istanbul, intent on divvying up the lands of the Ottoman Empire; and though Ataturk’s nationalists were to drive the Greeks out of Anatolia and recover the city on the Bosphorus from the Allies in 1923, they wasted no time in instead making Ankara the capital of the newly proclaimed Turkish Republic.
But with the backwaters beckoning, belittled Istanbul had already embarked on perhaps the most compelling and affecting period in all its long history, one that was especially shaped by the flight to Istanbul of some 185,000 White Russian soldiers, aristocrats and assorted camp followers. In this vivid narrative’s many tangled threads – war and occupation, displacement, espionage, radical social reform, the nationalists’ persecution of the city’s minorities, the women’s movement, the remarkable blossoming of the city’s jazz age – it’s the human detail that always impresses.
C. Nathan DeWall in The New York Times:
We do grow up. We get jobs. We have children of our own. Along the way, we lose our tendencies toward magical thinking. Or at least we think we do. Several streams of research in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy are converging on an uncomfortable truth: We’re more susceptible to magical thinking than we’d like to admit. Consider the quandary facing college students in a clever demonstration of magical thinking. An experimenter hands you several darts and instructs you to throw them at different pictures. Some depict likable objects (for example, a baby), others are neutral (for example, a face-shaped circle). Would your performance differ if you lobbed darts at a baby? It would. Performance plummeted when people threw the darts at the baby. Laura A. King, the psychologist at the University of Missouri who led this investigation, notes that research participants have a “baseless concern that a picture of an object shares an essential relationship with the object itself.”
Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that these studies demonstrate the magical law of similarity. Our minds subconsciously associate an image with an object. When something happens to the image, we experience a gut-level intuition that the object has changed as well. Put yourself in the place of those poor college students. What would it feel like to take aim at the baby, seeking to impale it through its bright blue eye? We can skewer a picture of a baby face. We can stab a voodoo doll. Even as our conscious minds know we caused no harm, our primitive reaction thinks we tempted fate.
Hattie MacDaniels Arrives at the Coconut Grove
late, in aqua and ermine, gardenias
scaling her left sleeve in a spasm of scent,
her gloves white, her smile chastened, purse giddy
with stars and rhinestones clipped to her brilliantined hair
on her free arm that fine Negro,
Mr. Wonderful Smith.
It’s the day that isn’t, February 29th,
at the end of the shortest month of the year-
and the sh*****st, too, everywhere
except Hollywood, California,
where the maid can wear mink and still be a maid,
bobbing her bandaged head and cursing
the white folks under her breath as she smiles
and shoos their silly daughters
in from the night dew … what can she be
thinking of, striding into the ballroom
where no black face has ever showed itself
except above a serving tray?
Hi-Hat-Hattie, Mama Mac, Her Haughtiness,
The “little lady” from Showboat whose name
Bing forgot, Beulah & Bertha & Malena
& Carrie & Violet & Cynthia & Fidelia,
one half of the Dark Barrymores —
dear Mammy we can’t help but hug you crawl into
your generous lap tease you
with arch innuendo so we can feel that
much more wicked and youthful
and sleek but oh what
we forgot: the four husbands, the phantom
pregnancy, your famous parties, your celebrated
ice box cake. Your giggle above the red petticoat’s rustle
black girl and white girl walking hand in hand
down the railroad tracks
in Kansas City, six years old.
The man advised you, now
that you were famous, to “begin eliminating”
your more “common” acquaintances
and your reply (catching him square
in the eye): “That’s a good idea.
I’ll start right now by eliminating you.”
Is she or isn’t she? Three million dishes,
a truckload of aprons and headrags later, and here
you are: poised, between husbands
and factions, no corset wide enough
to hold you in, your huge face a dark moon split
by that spontaneous smile — your trademark,
your curse. No matter, Hattie: It’s a long beautiful walk
into that flower-smothered standing ovation,
so go on
and make them wait.
by Rita Dove
from The Poetry Archive
Hear Rita Dove read this poem here.
Public Radio International interviews the novelist M. NourbeSe Philip, and Dohra Ahmad, author of Rotten English, on literatures in the vernacular. Also at the website, you listen to readings of David Copperfield in Jamaican patois, Spanglish, Hawaiian pidgin, Trinadadian and Tobgan vernacular, and standard English. (image Credit: id-iom):
There are probably as many terms for different kinds of English vernacular as there are vernaculars themselves: pidgin, patois, slang, creole dialect and so on.
But while we usually think of the vernaculars as oral versions of the English language, they're making their way into the written word as well.
“There's a really interesting paradox going on, where you're taking something that's constantly changing — and that people don't expect to see written down — and you're making it codified and setting it down for a wider audience," says Dohra Ahmad, editor of an anthology of vernacular literature called "Rotten English."
M. NourbeSe Philip, one of the authors included in the anthology, speaks and writes Trinidadian Creole but points out that the process of getting the language on the page is much the same as writing in Standard English.
“You can’t write it exactly as the person speaks it," she says. "You have to put it through a certain process that conveys the impression that it is being said in the dialect."
She writes both in dialect and in standard English, with her characters switching back and forth between the Englishes.
“As people from the Caribbean, we inhabit a spectrum of language, and you actually hear it when you go into the cultures," Philp says. "You can hear somebody code-switching. You might start off saying something in Standard English and midway switch into the dialect or the vernacular."
Monday, October 27, 2014
by Emrys Westacott
According to a number of studies done over several years, cheating is rife in US high schools and colleges. More than 60% of students report having cheated at least once, and it is quite likely that findings based on self-reporting understate rather than overstate the incidence of cheating. Understandably, most educators view this as a serious problem. At the college where I work, the issue has been discussed at length in faculty meetings, and policies have been carefully crafted to try to discourage academic dishonesty. But in my experience these discussions are overly self-righteous and insufficiently self-critical. We hear the phrase "academic dishonesty" and we immediately whistle for our moral high horse. But too much moralistic tongue-clicking can blind us to the ways in which we who constitute the system contribute to the very malady we lament. For if academic dishonesty is like a disease—and we repeatedly hear it described as an "epidemic"—we may all be carriers, even cultivators, of the virus that causes it. Let me explain.
Socrates sought to understand the essence of a thing by asking what all instances of it have in common. This approach is open to well-known objections, but it can have its uses. In the present case, for example, I think it leads to the following important observation: all instances of academic dishonesty are attempts to appear cleverer, more knowledgeable, more skillful, or more industrious than one really is. Buying or copying a term paper, plagiarizing from the Internet, using a crib sheet on an exam, accessing external assistance from beyond the exam room by means of a cell phone, fabricating a lab report, having another student sign one's name on an attendance sheet—all such practices serve this same purpose. The goal is to produce an appearance that is more impressive than the reality.
So far, so obvious, you might say. But what is not so obvious—and this is a key point in the argument I am making—is that this same prioritizing of appearance over reality permeates much of our education system. It is endorsed by parents, teachers, and administrators, and it is encouraged by many of our well-intentioned pedagogical practices. Students absorb this ordering of values over many years, especially in high school; so by the time they reach college they have been marinating in the toxin for a long time. Here are some examples of what I mean.
by Charlie Huenemann
"It is therefore worth noting," Schopenhauer writes, "and indeed wonderful to see, how man, besides his life in the concrete, always lives a second life in the abstract." I suppose you might say that some of us (especially college professors) tend to live more in the abstract than not. But in fact we all have dual citizenship in the concrete and abstract worlds. One world is at our fingertips, at the tips of our tongues, and folded into our fields of vision. The concrete world is just the world; and the more we try to describe it, the more we fail, as the here and now is immeasurably more vivid than the words "here" and "now" could ever suggest - even in italics.
The second world is the one we encounter just as soon as we begin thinking and talking about the here and now. It is such stuff as dreams are made on; its substance is concept, theory, relation. We make models of the concrete world, and think about those models and imagine what the consequences would be if we tried this or that. Sometimes our models are wrong and we make mistakes. Other times our models work pretty well and we manage to figure out some portion of the concrete world and manipulate it to our advantage. But in any case, we all shuttle between the two worlds as we live and think.
Right now, of course, you and I are deep into an abstract world, forming a model of how we move back and forth between our two worlds. We are modeling our own modeling. But I'll drop that line of thought now, since it leaves me dizzy and confused. My fundamental point is that the abstract world isn't reserved only for college professors. We all engage with it all the time, except perhaps when we sleep or are lost blessedly in the vivacity of sensual experience, and it is in some ways just as close to us as whatever is here and now. To be a human, as Schopenhauer suggests, is to live in two worlds.
Brooks Riley. Viennese Office Chair, circa 1910.
Thanks to Brooks.
by Brooks Riley
I'm standing at the window looking north over a small garden with several different kinds of trees and bushes. If I refine my intake of visual information, I am, in fact, gazing at many different shades of green at once, perhaps even all of them (at least 57, like Heinz). There's the middle green of leaves on a thorny bush in the sunlight, and on the same bush, a darker green tweaked by shade. Add to these variations of light the variety of flora in my view, and I come away with a whole alphabet of green—the common green of a lawn, the brown green of dying leaves, the gray-green highlights of a fir tree, the black green of certain waxy leaves, the lime green of new leaves on a late bloomer, the Schweinfurt green of certain succulents. Green in nature is a chlorophyll-induced industry all its own—a Pantene paradise. . .
. . . for those who love green.
I do not love green. Separated from nature, green is a travesty. I was born with green eyes, and I do love them, but I wouldn't want their hue on my sofa or my walls or my bedspread or my person. Removed from nature, decorative green is a shabby attempt to remember nature or worse, to try to recreate its effect on us. As a child I was attracted to green olives, acquiring a taste for them that had as much to do with their color as with their shape. But olive green is not that far from baby-couldn't-help-it green, or drab Polizei green (slowly being phased out in favor of blue), and removed from its smooth round humble origins in an olive, loathsome. So too the so-called institutional green, once thought to soothe the troubled souls of those coerced to spend time in schools, hospitals, or insane asylums.
I'm not here to condemn another's love of the color green. And from a Pantene point of view, I confess to appreciating certain shades of green (artichoke green, celadon green), as long as I don't have to apply them to anything.
by Randolyn Zinn
Flipping through photos of a recent trip to Spain, I was struck by this one.
A typical tobacco drying barn a few miles from Granada, Spain, in the fields of Fuento Vaqueros -- Federico Garcia Lorca’s birthplace. In town we toured the Lorca family house and museum (no photos allowed) to ogle his cradle, his mother's kitchen and the piano where he practiced cancionnes. Out back an old pomegranate tree in the courtyard was old enough to have shaded Federico as a child as he played beneath its boughs. Upstairs, glass cases displayed selected drawings, notebooks and first editions of his poetry and plays. We sat down to watch a quick film with no sound of the young poet in overalls unloading scenery from the back of a truck with his theatrical troupe, La Barraca, on tour performing Calderon’s La Vida Es Sueno or Life Is A Dream in the white towns of Andulucia. He wrote his own plays at this time: Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba. We gasped at the end of the clip when Lorca smiled and waved at the camera…he was waving to us ninety years later in his own house. Life is a dream.
by Brooks Riley
by Carl Pierer
It is necessary that two men have the same number of hair, gold, and others.[i]
This meme is taken from a scene in the Cohen brother's 1998 comedy "The Big Lebowski". During a game of bowling, Walter, in the picture, gets annoyed at the other characters constantly overstepping the line. Drawing a gun, he asks: "Am I the only around here who gives a shit about rules?"[ii]
Considering that there are roughly 7 billion people on earth, a positive answer seems highly unlikely. But it is possible to do better. We can know with certainty, i.e. prove, that the creator of the meme is not the only one. This is a simple and straightforward application of a fascinating, intuitive and yet powerful mathematical principle. It is usually called "pigeonhole principle" (for reasons to be explained below) or "Dirichlet's principle".
The German mathematician Gustav Lejeune Dirichlet was born in 1805 in Düren, a small town near Aachen. Although Dirichlet was no child prodigy, his love for mathematics and studies in general became apparent early in his life. His parents had him destined for the career of a merchant, but upon his insisting to attend the Gymnasium (secondary school), they sent him to Bonn, at the age of 12. After only two years, he transferred to a Gymnasium in Cologne, where he studied mathematics with Georg Simon Ohm (1789-1854), who is famous for his discovery of Ohm's Law. Dirichlet left this school after only one year, with a leaving certificate in his pocket but without an Abitur, which would cause him some troubles later in his life. At that time, students were required to be able to carry a conversation in Latin to pass the Abitur examination. With only three years of secondary education, Dirichlet could not comply with this crucial requirement. However, Dirichlet was fortunate that no Abitur was required to study mathematics.
by Thomas Rodham Wells
You may have heard of the gender income gap. It is one of the most obvious signs that despite being equal in theory, women still lack real equality. Some of it is still due to active discrimination by people who still haven't got the equal treatment message. But much more of it is the result of a history of unjust gender norms and factual errors inscribed into our institutions, most notably the bundle of moral expectations we hold about what can be demanded of women rather than men in terms of unpaid care of children, the disabled and the elderly.
The problem is that fairness – the principle of the equal treatment of equals – is a poor guide to action here. Our history has bequeathed us a gender injustice complex of interlocking and mutually reinforcing institutional arrangements and moral values that altogether make women less economically valued than men. The outcome is pretty clear - women tend to earn much less than men - but it is hard to pin down specific violations of fair treatment by specific agents who can be held responsible. Sexist pigs are relatively easy to pick out and chastise, and in some cases may even be successfully prosecuted for discrimination or other misbehaviour. But it's rather harder to condemn a university educated couple for agreeing between themselves to follow the traditional model of male breadwinner and female homemaker. Even if that decision is replicated in household after household leading to dramatic aggregate differences in labour market participation rates for women, especially in full-time professional work.
It is true that a great many policies have been proposed, and sometimes even implemented, to address different pieces of the gender injustice complex, from quotas in boardrooms and the top management of public institutions to compulsory paternity leave. But such reforms struggle politically, not least because they seem to impose more unfairness - the unequal treatment of men and women because of their gender. A good many people, including many women, reasonably object to the incoherence of trying to solve a fairness problem by creating more unfairness. More positive measures, such as providing free child-care from tax revenues, are considered too expensive to fully implement. And for all the political capital these policies require to be put into action, each can only have incremental effects anyway because they only address one piece of the puzzle at a time. They rarely inspire much popular support.
We've been thinking about this the wrong way, distracted by the idea that unfairness must be produced by bad motives that are best addressed by cumulative moral exhortation, or something else equally cheap like training young women to 'lean in'. If we all want gender equality then eventually, surely, it will come about by itself.
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
Long years ago, when I waddled around in pigtails, I said aloud the magic words that for many years characterized how I felt about the world, my world. "I will settle in America", I said. Neither did I know how heavy "settling" can be nor was I clued into the power of words. Carelessly, toddler-ly, I threw around that which would one day make my world.We didn't say politically correct things then. As far as we all knew, all of the Americas was North America, and all of North America was the US. My father had just returned from travels to the US, and he had brought back suitcases spilling over with things guaranteed to charm curmudgeonly three year olds.
America was then not only an idea but an escape. I was charmed into thinking that going to America indicated not only the newness of a world, but a not-ness of the one I inhabited. No school, no dreary days, no strange scapes of a scary adult world with its inexplicable sorrows and forbidding rules. America was fabulous, with its flowery denims, and video games, and automatic erasers. I was mesmerized by View-Masters, with their otherworldly scuffed gaze onto so-near foreign shores.
These were the eighties. India was a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic with one, and later two, television channels. We all read the national pledge aloud in school, that went something to the effect of "India is my country and all Indians are my brothers and sisters". We all suffered one heckler in every class who would mutter sotto voce "Well who do I marry then?" We received our news from singular sources and imagined our leaders sovereign, if ineffectual. We trusted secularism, even if in its often troubled avatar, tolerance. We muddled through power cuts, and ration cards, and held onto a quiet, steely middle-classness. Benedict Anderson would have pronounced us a truly well-imagined nation; or at least, some of us.
In this world, America's otherness beckoned ever so strongly with its free love (read sex), and rampant spending; with its alter-egoness of individualism and seeming control over the world. But India allied with the USSR. The mythical Russia communicated to us only held Mathematics books, fairy tales, and War and Peace in stock. I hated math, much preferred the Brothers Grimm, and to date, am at odds with the melancholies of Tolstoy.
Sunday, October 26, 2014
A potent theory has emerged explaining a mysterious statistical law that arises throughout physics and mathematics
Natalie Wolchover in Quanta:
Imagine an archipelago where each island hosts a single tortoise species and all the islands are connected — say by rafts of flotsam. As the tortoises interact by dipping into one another’s food supplies, their populations fluctuate.
In 1972, the biologist Robert May devised a simple mathematical model that worked much like the archipelago. He wanted to figure out whether a complex ecosystem can ever be stable or whether interactions between species inevitably lead some to wipe out others. By indexing chance interactions between species as random numbers in a matrix, he calculated the critical “interaction strength” — a measure of the number of flotsam rafts, for example — needed to destabilize the ecosystem. Below this critical point, all species maintained steady populations. Above it, the populations shot toward zero or infinity.
Little did May know, the tipping point he discovered was one of the first glimpses of a curiously pervasive statistical law.
The law appeared in full form two decades later, when the mathematicians Craig Tracy and Harold Widom proved that the critical point in the kind of model May used was the peak of a statistical distribution. Then, in 1999, Jinho Baik, Percy Deift and Kurt Johansson discovered that the same statistical distribution also describes variations in sequences of shuffled integers — a completely unrelated mathematical abstraction. Soon the distribution appeared in models of the wriggling perimeter of a bacterial colony and other kinds of random growth. Before long, it was showing up all over physics and mathematics.
“The big question was why,” said Satya Majumdar, a statistical physicist at the University of Paris-Sud. “Why does it pop up everywhere?”