Math Problems

The Myth Math: And other STEM Delusions by Andrew Hacker
2016 The New Press

“Is Algebra Necessary?” asked the headline of a New York Times op-ed written by Andrew Hacker, a political scientist. His negative reply produced a minor storm of angry comments and counterarguments from almost everybody. Now he’s back with the same arguments in book length.

Note that my late father had a M.Sc. in Mathematics, he was a college mathematics professor (teaching calculus, linear algebra and perhaps any remedial math classes the college offered), I did well enough in high school and college math and I am currently in university doing a Computer Science degree. So you expect me to join his many angry critics. Yet, I do not think I can.

There is a lot to agree with Hacker. The current American fad of requiring every high school student to take advanced math classes is a mistake, another pointless ‘fix’ that does not fix anything, but does break a lot of other things. The job market for STEM majors is far graver than typically pictured, thanks to (i) industries trying to drive down wages, (ii) wishful thinking and (iii) a job market for non-STEM majors that even more dire. His description of professional mathematicians working on the mathematics curriculum reminds me of professional writers giving grammar advice; just because a person can creating new theorems or short stories, does mean necessarily mean they are good at developing a curriculum or describing grammar. They have different skill sets, but the difference is often lost on the public and the professionals themselves.

Still, it feels like it goes too far. Couldn’t this all be resolved with some minor tracking? The school system I went to had too required streams of math starting in Grade 9, with an advanced and basic streams (there was also a talented and gifted program, and probably remedial classes as well). The advanced stream leads to the post-secondary sequences of calculus and linear algebra, while the basic stream was more like a ‘quantitative reasoning’ class that Hacker advocates. I believe there were options to ‘upgrade’ during the summer. Likewise, I think there should be similarly free adult education class for those who have already graduated high school. I think these ‘upgrading options’ should go a long way to ease concerns about the fairness of tracking.


Books for December-January-February

It is a good thing that I do not keep new year resolution, or my semi-formal vague self-promise to keep this blog updated would long been missed. So instead, I will try to put some thoughts on the books that I have read and that have left an impression, good or bad, on me. Hopeful I could make this a semi-regular feature. Note a lot of this is all from memory, so please forgive the errors. Links go to LibraryThing entries, where they have links to all the online booksellers.

  • The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist’s Quest for a Sustainable Future by Mason Inman: a biography of M. King Hubbert, the oil geologist who most famously predicted the peak of conventional oil discoveries in the 1970’s. The first half is an interesting and insightful story of Hubbert’s life from birth to his famous prediction. Yet the second half drags, with the narrative shifting the US energy policy from Carter to Reagan. Recommend.
  • The Nature of Crops: How We Came to Eat the Plants We Do by John Warren: a short books on food crops. It’s a bit disorganized, and it does feel like it would have made a good companion to a sadly unproduced documentary. Yet it does provide some clear lessons: the majority of all the plants grown for human consumption comes from selected few edible species; indeed, many edible plants are often uneaten. The boundary between “cultivated” and “wild” often quite fluid. Often the plants we like to eat are often poisonous; those plants have the evolutionary strategy of storing lots of energy while creating poisons to deter the plant eaters, like us. The process of domestication often involves reducing those defenses, which reduces their protection of other predators, which we defeat using poisons of our own, who then become resistant to them, which means we have make more poison even more poisonous … and so on. He ends with a concluding chapter arguing against Jared Diamond’s arguments from Guns, Germs and Steel. Recommend.

  • Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human, Transformed Society, and Brought Our World to the Brink by Richard L. Currier: Speaking of Diamond, this book’s jacket described “Diamond-esque”, and that probably a good description. This is a history of the human race from its origins as a merely different kind of ape to globe-altering super-species, all told from point of technologies (which he defines as ‘things have been purposely altered for some goal in mind’) , particularly the 8 “technologies” in the subtitle. These include fire, clothing, spoken language (which I cannot see as being technological in any definition; it’s an inherited trait), agriculture, settlements, boats, machine tools and digital computers. Along the way, he examines how they have affected human biology, human societies and the wider world. Recommend.

  • Japan and the Shackles of the Past by R. Taggart Murphy: a guide to modern Japan and its history, economy, politics and culture and how they all inter-relates with one another, and how this effects its relationship with the world. While he loves the place, he very critical of its flaws, and make a good case that in many ways, the world has gotten more Japanese over the years. I think it certainly useful in understanding East Asia in general (although I doubt many Koreans or Chinese would like that. Recommend.

  • Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife. Didn’t finish it. It just was too hand-wavely and does not give enough facts.  Don’t Recomend.

  • Introducing Logic by  Dan Cryan and Sharron Shatil. I’ve taken a (linguistic) Semantics class and I’m currently taking a Discrete Math (for computer science) class, all of which involves introducing the rudiments of propositional and predicate logic, so much of the material was not new to me. Yet much of stuff further on was, and overall it does provide the reader with a good map of the subject explore further … or just be able to recall a few tidbits to impress people with. Recomend.

Partly because of my return to university and partly because politics (and economics) has become an exhausting tire fire (and I don’t just mean the US with the Trump Administration and the “Resistance”), my reading has shifted away from current affairs and history and more toward computer science, (pop) mathematics and logic. It is nice get back to more “grounded” subjects.

Making America Great [Again], From Alexander Hamilton to Donald Trump

So the running mate of the Big Man from New York went to see the hit Broadway musical about the original Big Man from New York, but he didn’t expect what was waiting for him:

As the play ended, the actor who played Vice President Aaron Burr, Brandon Victor Dixon, acknowledged that Mr. Pence was in the audience, thanked him for attending and added, “We hope you will hear us out.”

“We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” he said. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

The audience broke out in enthusiastic applause and cheers.

The Donald did what does what the Donald is wont to do, and went to Twitter to complain:

Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing.This should not happen!
The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!

Thus beginning a Twitter feud between the President-elect and the cast of a rap musical based on a biography of a Founding Father of the USA. Because it’s 2016.

Interestingly, I realized there was a deeper connection between Alexander Hamilton and Donald Trump. From How Asia Works (Joe Studwell, Grove Press, 2016):

[Friedrich] List’s views on development had formed while he was living in the United States between 1825 and 1832, when he had studied the arguments for a protectionist industrial policy to nurture ‘infant industries’ set out by Alexander Hamilton in his Report on the Subject of Manufactures submitted to Congress in 1791. From the early nineteenth century onwards, many of report’s recommendations – including selected high tariffs – were adopted in America.

What List figured out in America, the Japanese learned from List and his Historical School colleagues. (p. 84-85)

From Japan, this approach to economic development spreed to South Korea and Taiwan, where it provided the bases of the economic miracles there. Where upon one Donald Trump has found them:

That Trump has sympathizers out here makes sense – even though he bashes the region all the time – because he obviously got a lot of his political ideas from East Asia: Mercantilism, race nationalism, hostility to immigration, huge distrust of Islam, oligopolistic mega-corporations dominated by interlocking family and crony networks, soft authoritarianism, manipulating the state to benefit politically-connected insiders, golf – that’s Trumpism. But it’s also the de facto governing ideology of contemporary Sinic-Confucian East Asia.

I remained convinced that Trump learned about East Asia primarily through the ‘declinist’ school of the 1980s. The popularized version of that argument was Michael Crichton’s 1992 novel Rising Sun. Given that this is Trump we are talking about though, he probably just watched the movie instead. This is why he talks about Japan so much.

What just amazes me is that Trump simultaneously has a 35-year history attacking the East Asian (mostly Japanese) nationalist-developmentalist model while pretty much proposing to bring it to the United States now if he gets elected. Trump is basically acting like what he thinks Japanese businessmen acted like in 1985 – just with an extra thick layer of idiocy and know-nothingness on top . Why does no one else see this? So if you are Japanese, maybe you can be proud in a weird way (lol): Trump thinks he’s you, just turning the tables.

So there you go. Trumpism is Hamiltonianism come home. Mind you, this doesn’t mean it will work, or even that he will be able to implement them. In particular, if manufacturing did return to the USA in substantial numbers, it would probably be high automated and in the Southern right-to-work states, rather than the Rest Belt. But you can still directly trace the intellectual legacy between the New Yorkers.

Back in the Saddle

I’ve gotten back into the habit and hobby of bicycling after a 10 year hiatus. I’ve tried to do it at least five times a week, which I think I reasonable meet. Now, winter has arrived – sort of, it’s 10 C with rain here – and the cycling lanes are closes until April. So it’s a good time to reflect. I’ve read a variety of books on the subject, from introductory guides to history books. Perhaps later I will write reviews on them, but for now I will just leave a few uncollected thoughts.

I’ve been using two kinds of bicycles. First is a old and cheap mountain bike. It’s probably not best one around, but it’s what I have. Replaced the rusted chain, the cables and the grips, and got a two locks (a u-lock, cable and cable lock), rear rack, rack bag, handlebar and fenders. Hint if you want to get back into cycling with your old cheap bike: after making sure it is safe to ride (wheels are in reasonable shape, tires can hold air, brakes can stop with sufficient force, drive train is in good shape), make a budget for what accessories you need and want. If you don’t want to race, I would recommend a rear rack and rack bag for storing stuff and fenders to keep dirt and mud out.

I’ve also used the local bikeshare program here, Bixi. I am not sure how I feel about it. The bikes are adequate enough, although I do wonder how well maintained they are (I read they have gotten worse). They do their job, allowing people to ride for 30 minutes (45 minutes if you’re a subscriber). But I don’t most of my on-Island riding in downtown, which is probably even easier traverse by walking and using the metro.

Speaking of safety, I don’t like riding within the busy, or even the lest busy streets. I think it can be done safely, but from my few experiences on the roads, I find it just sucks all the fun and enjoyment out cycling, so why bother? The cycling lanes, of which there is a reasonable network here, seem good enough for me. Although, I must admit, my  only major accident thus far has been crashing to a light pole around a tightly wrapped bicycle. While perhaps there was a good deal of fault on my part, I still think the path was poorly constructed.

Bicycles are an odd thing. It seem simple enough, but they are actually quite recent invention, about 200-100 years old. It’s newer than trains (1830). It’s modern form (the safety bicycle, with pneumatic tires and chain-driven rear drive) is only about 10 years older than the automobile. My guess is for two reason. First, unless you’ve seen and done it, riding a machine with two wheels that does not stand straight while at rest sounds like an insane idea. Indeed, in the years before the safety bicycle, adult tricycles were popular for ladies as safer alternative to the ordinary (i.e. the high wheeler/penny farthing). More importantly, I think (I’m not an engineer) to make a good bicycle requires a high degree of engineering expertise. Particularly the chain, which need to handle the forces it needs to transmit from the crank to the back wheel. Once you able to build a good bicycle, you can begin to build automobiles and motorcycles. Also airplanes;  the Wright brothers began as bicycle mechanics. Within the context of the history of transportation, it is a bridge between the muscle-powered transportation to mechanized transportation.

A Life with Books

I’ve got too many goddamn books.

I have always been known a bookworm, and libraries and bookstore have always been my favorite places to be. My biggest problem is getting too many books, buying them and not reading them months or years later. While this is not a problem with bookstore, libraries have always expected their books to be returned in a timely fashion. I’ve always had problems with fines, often running into $10 or so.

It took me a while to realize that many scholarly tomes are best read in a piecemeal fashion, rather than in a page-by-page manner. More depressingly, it’s better to go in-depth with a few subjects rather  broadly with many subjects. The age of polymaths, even in an amateur fashion, has long pasted.

I also have an imbalance in my reading. I love any non-fiction books – histories, science, etc. I have even found reading grammar books to be interesting (yet I don’t have much aptitude in learning languages – I’m not that good a memorizer). Yet my fiction reading has atrophied over the years. The most recent fiction I’ve read was the collected original Sherlock Holmes stories – and I still haven’t finished them! Like Bart Simpson, I think TV has ruined my imagination. Maybe I just find it had to “see” the actions described in the books. I found similar trouble when reading military history and its description of battles.

Good Evening, World!

This will a collection of reviews of books, as well a collection of thoughts on topical items. My interests run the gamut from history to social sciences to science. Jack of all trades and master of none. I try to focus my interest, but I find the world to fascinating restrict myself. Sigh.

In spite of name, I don’t think I will cover much fiction. I like to think that I have good taste in non-fiction, but most fiction I consume is … just terrible. Maybe I try to read “the classics” just for a lark.