The Glory of Math Is to Matter

Amir Alexander in Scientific American:

Carl_JacobiIn 1842, when the famed German mathematician Carl Gustav Jacobi was invited to speak to a scientific meeting in Manchester, he had a surprise in store for his English hosts. “It is the glory of science to be of no use,” he announced to the startled gathering of physical scientists. The true aim of science is “the honor of the human spirit,” and whether it turns out to be of any practical use matters not at all.

Jacobi made few converts that day. His declaration, he reported to his brother with satisfaction, “caused a vehement shaking of heads,” which was only to be expected from a crowd of men who were devoting their careers to improving industrial processes in the manufacturing capital of Europe. But things were different among Jacobi’s mathematical colleagues, who increasingly came to share his view that mathematical truths stood for themselves, and needed no further justification.

To be sure, no one (including Jacobi) denies that some fields of mathematics have proven extremely useful, and had made modern technology possible. But other fields, including some of the greatest mathematical discoveries ever, seem to serve no practical purpose whatsoever.

It was so from the beginning. The ancient science of geometry, as its name suggests, had its origins in the practical art of land measurement, but by the time Euclid codified it around 300 BCE it had strayed far from its roots.

More here.

Is Pakistan’s Democracy Under Threat?

Ahmed Humayun in Foreign Policy:

ScreenHunter_740 Aug. 12 17.33Although he won a big mandate last year at Pakistan's polls, Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister of Pakistan and head of the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim league (PML-N), is under siege at home. The country's vociferous media is hyping up the clash between Sharif and Imran Khan, Sharif's foremost political challenger and the head of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), who is organizing a “long march” on Islamabad on Pakistan's upcoming Independence Day on August 14. Meanwhile, Tahirul Qadri, the influential Pakistani-Canadian preacher, has announced a competing “Revolution” march on the same day to overthrow the political system. Widespread discontent at Sharif's performance in office to date and the determination of the security establishment to avoid ceding primacy to civilian rule has added to the sense of a looming political crisis.

Sharif made extravagant promises during the 2013 electoral campaign that have yet to be fulfilled. For example, the delivery of basic services remains dismal across the board — in particular, the severe energyshortage shows no sign of resolution. Another problem is that political power is excessively centralized. Sharif and his closest associates call the shots on all major initiatives, which has reduced the pool of available technocratic expertise and made the regime vulnerable to the charge of crony governance. Sharif himself has been disengaged from parliament, appearing a mere seven times in the national assembly over the course of the first parliamentary year. And much needed economic reforms that could result in job creation and significant economic growth — such as the widening of the tax base — have yet to be undertaken, in part due to the fear of political fallout.

More here.

obama and the ‘g’ word

Obama3Cynthia Haven at The Book Haven:

It was, perhaps, his most statesmanlike moment: a president brought to the decision he didn’t want to make, to defend a far-off nation he’d hoped was part of our nation’s past. “Earlier this week, one Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help,”President Obama said in a somber statement delivered from the State Dining Room. “Well, today America is coming to help.” The New York Times described the situation with a certain amount of prissiness:

Speaking at the White House on Thursday night, Mr. Obama also said that American military aircraft had dropped food and water to tens of thousands of Iraqis trapped on a barren mountain range in northwestern Iraq, having fled the militants, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who threaten them with what Mr. Obama called “genocide.”

Dropping the “g” word gives gravitas to any presidential statement. What Mr. Obama “called” genocide presumably included not only the attempt to wipe the small tribe of Yezidis off the face of the earth by allowing them to die of thirst and hunger on a mountain, but also the attempt to erase 2,000 years of Christian history in Iraq, along with its Chaldean, Assyrian, and other adherents (some of whom are the last speakers of Aramaic anywhere – we wrote about that here), along with the massacre of hundreds of young Shia men at Takrit, with more, much more, to come.

more here.

West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776

Sea_lionsAndrew Graybill at The American Scholar:

For years, Claudio Saunt vividly recalled the summer of 1976, when as an eight-year-old boy he went to see an enormous birthday cake that had traveled cross-country to his hometown of San Francisco in honor of the U.S. Bicentennial. The cake, purportedly the world’s largest confection, stood three stories tall, weighed 35,000 pounds, and was festooned with scenes from the American Revolution. But as Saunt, now a professor of history at the University of Georgia, explains in his marvelous new book, he was betrayed by his memory. From contemporary accounts, he has learned that the cake was actually a thoroughly local affair, created by a pastry chef to celebrate the Bay Area’s own 200-year anniversary, traced to the establishment of a Spanish outpost there in 1776. As Saunt puts it: “San Francisco’s history was at such odds with the narrative being celebrated for the national Bicentennial that my fourth-grade imagination turned the cake into a tribute to events in Boston, Philadelphia, and elsewhere along the East Coast.”

West of the Revolution is Saunt’s attempt to take in what was happening at other places in North America at the moment that the 13 colonies—which together represent just four percent of the continental landmass—were declaring their independence from England.

more here.

joseph epstein’s literary eduction

331x500xsledge_a_literary_education_cover.jpg,qitok=ICN3crSx.pagespeed.ic.diUvvineelJohn S. Sledge at Virginia Quarterly Review:

On the page, Epstein aspires to be one of the “laughing skeptics” and mostly succeeds. He is mistrustful of “large ideas, and especially idea systems,” but his touch is light, and he dishes out the bons mots without meanness or acerbity. One may not always agree with his judgments, but they are rendered with art and wit. For example, his definition of a “middlebrow” is “anyone who takes either Woody Allen or Spike Lee seriously as an artist.” Contemporary poetry is “slightly political, heavily preening, and not distinguished enough in language or subtlety of thought to be memorable.” He likes Henry James (though his enthusiasm for The Princess Casamassima strikes me, a student of James myself, as somewhat unusual), Willa Cather, and Ralph Ellison. Held in low regard, “second- or third-rate writers,” are Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Jack Kerouac, and Adrienne Rich.

In his essay “What to Do about the Arts?” (1995), originally published inCommentary, Epstein relates the story of how, after Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, he was contacted by a British journalist for an opinion about the now-late poet and memoirist Maya Angelou. The man was surprised when Epstein said that he had no opinion about Angelou because he didn’t read her and knew no one who did.

more here.

If I Reacted to Other People’s Careers the Way They React to Me Becoming a Mathematician

Jordy Greenblatt in Put It All On Red:

Math-cartoonYou’re a doctor? I don’t really know anything about medicine, but can you explain exactly how the endocrine system works in two minutes or less?

You’re a writer? I had a terrible writing teacher in high school. I bet I wouldn’t like you.

You’re a carpenter? You must be super good at carpentering.

You’re a singer? I stopped singing in 11th grade. The last song I sang was… hmmmmm… let’s see… Mozart’s Requiem. I wasn’t very good at that song.

More here. [Thanks to Jennifer Oullette.]

‘Humans of New York’ Is Suddenly a War Report From Iraq

Emily Dreyfuss in Wired:

HONY-UN-660x386My favorite thing on the internet might be your favorite thing, too. As of right now 8.8 million people “like” it on Facebook. Humans of New York, the photo blog and Facebook page run by Brandon Stanton, is a bulwark of hope in what sometimes feels like an onslaught of despair. And as of yesterday, it’s operating from a warzone. In case you’re not familiar, Brandon takes a photo of a stranger on the street (usually in New York City, but notably sometimes as far away as Iran) and posts a snippet of conversation with the subject. Somehow this snapshot manages to capture a whole life, and with it parts of our lives, too, our hopes and dreams and sorrows.

…That’s why right now Brandon is travelling with the U.N. on a World Tour. This is not the first time he has partnered with the U.N.: he spoke at the 37th UNIS-UN conference last year. Brandon announced this trip on Wednesday, writing: “The point of the trip is not to “say” anything about the world. But rather to visit some faraway places, and listen to as many people as possible.” While visiting 10 countries, Brandon will be helping to promote the eight Millennium Development Goals that U.N. member states hopes to achieve by 2015, among them eradicating child poverty and hungry and encouraging universal primary education. Commenters have suggested he name the tour Humans of the World, but Brandon is the first to point out that it “would be rather foolish to claim that these portraits and stories somehow represent ‘the world,’ or humanity as a whole.” But, like the snapshots he shares, this glimpse at a part will speak volumes about the whole. He writes, “we hope this trip may in some way help to inspire a global perspective, while bringing awareness to the challenges that we all need to tackle together.” Two days ago he traveled to Iraq. Yesterday morning EST he posted three photos from Irbil, in Kurdistan. Two such photos broke my (and 8 million other people’s) heart. One shows a smiling man in a wheel chair, his underdeveloped legs resting atop a box. This is the caption:

“My happiest moments are whenever I see my mother happy.”
“What’s the happiest you’ve ever seen her?”
“When I was a child, some German doctors told us that I could have a surgery in Italy, and my legs would work again. She was so happy she started crying. But I never had the money to go.”

The next photo is a close up of the man’s phone, his hands and feet out of focus in the background. On the screen is an image he photoshopped of his face onto a healthy body, “to see what I would look like.”

More here.

an Improvisational Genius, Forever Present in the Moment

A O Scott in The New York Times:

WILLIAMSobit-master675Some years ago, at a party at the Cannes Film Festival, I was leaning against a rail watching a fireworks display when I heard a familiar voice behind me. Or rather, at least a dozen voices, punctuating the offshore explosions with jokes, non sequiturs and off-the-wall pop-cultural, sexual and political references. There was no need to turn around: The voices were not talking directly to me and they could not have belonged to anyone other than Robin Williams, who was extemporizing a monologue at least as pyrotechnically amazing as what was unfolding against the Mediterranean sky. I’m unable to recall the details now, but you can probably imagine the rapid-fire succession of accents and pitches — macho basso, squeaky girly, French, Spanish, African-American, human, animal and alien — entangling with curlicues of self-conscious commentary about the sheer ridiculousness of anyone trying to narrate explosions of colored gunpowder in real time. Very few people would try to upstage fireworks, and probably only Robin Williams could have succeeded. I doubt anyone asked him for his play-by-play, an impromptu performance for a small, captive group, and I can’t say if it arose from inspiration or compulsion. Maybe there’s not really a difference. Whether or not anyone expected him to be, and maybe whether or not he entirely wanted to be, he was on.

…Janet Maslin, reviewing his standup act in 1979, cataloged a tumble of riffs that ranged from an impression of Jacques Cousteau to “an evangelist at the Disco Temple of Comedy,” to Truman Capote Jr. at “the Kindergarten of the Stars” (whatever that was). “He acts out the Reader’s Digest condensed version of ‘Roots,’ ” Ms. Maslin wrote, “which lasts 15 seconds in its entirety. He improvises a Shakespearean-sounding epic about the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, playing all the parts himself, including Einstein’s ghost.”

More here.

The Mind Matters

by Yohan J. John

What is the mind? And what is its relationship with the body? Philosophers, psychologists, cognitive scientists and neuroscientists have all attempted to bring their professional heft to bear on the “mind-body problem”, but consensus remains elusive. At best, mainstream academics and researchers share a metaphysical commitment: the belief that the seemingly immaterial mind emerges from ordinary matter, specifically the brain. This position — known as materialism or physicalism — has replaced mind-body dualism as the mainstream academic position on the mind-body problem. According to dualism, mind and matter are completely separate substances, and mind (or soul, or spirit) merely inhabits matter. Dualism is a problematic position because it doesn’t offer a clear explanation of how the immaterial mind can causally interact with the material body. How can the immaterial soul push the buttons in the body’s control room… if it doesn’t have hands?

Mind-developmentMaterialism avoids this issue by denying the existence of two separate substances — mind is matter too, and is therefore perfectly capable of influencing the body. But having made this claim, many materialists promptly forget about the influence of the mind on the body. There seems to be a temptation to skip the difficult step of linking complex mental phenomena with neural processes. Many people think this step is just a matter of working out the details, and they readily replace mental terms like ‘intention’, ‘attitude’, or ‘mood’, with terms that seem more solid, like ‘pleasure chemical’, ‘depression gene’, or ‘empathy neuron’. But these concepts have thus far proved woefully inadequate for constructing a mechanistic theory of how the mind works. Rather than explaining the mind, this kind of premature reductionism seems to explain the mind away. While we work out the details of how exactly the brain gives rise to intentions, attitudes, and moods, we should not lose sight of the fact that these kinds of mental phenomena have measurable influences on the body.

Recent studies linking epigenetics, neuroscience and medicine reveal that subjective experience can have a profound impact on our physical and mental well-being. Mounting evidence is telling us something that was often neglected in the incomplete transition from dualism to materialism — that the mind is a crucial material force that influences the body, and by extension, the world outside the body.

Read more »

How to say “No” to your doctor: improving your health by decreasing your health care

by Carol A. Westbrook

PillsHas your doctor ever said to you, “You have too many doctors and are taking too many pills. It's time to cut back on both”? No? Well I have. Maybe it's time you brought it up with your doctors, too.

Do you really need a dozen pills a day to keep you alive, feeling well, and happy? Can you even afford them? Is it possible that the combination of meds that you are taking is making you feel worse, not better? Are you using up all of your sick leave and vacation time to attend multiple doctors' visits? Are you paying way much out of pocket for office visits and pharmacy co-pays, in spite of the fact that you have very good insurance? If this applies to you, then read on.

I am not referring to those of you with serious or chronic medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, who really do need those life-saving medicines and frequent clinic visits. I am referring here to the average healthy adult, who has no major medical problems, yet is taking perhaps twice as many prescription drugs and seeing multiple doctors 3 – 4 times as often as he would have done ten or fifteen years ago. Is he any healthier for it?

There is no doubt that modern medical care has made a tremendous impact on keeping us healthy and alive. The average life expectancy has increased dramatically over the last half century, from about 67 years in 1950 to almost 78 years today, and those who live to age 65 can expect to have, on average, almost 18 additional years to live! Some of this is due to lifestyle changes but most of the gain is due to advances in medical care, especially in two areas: cardiac disease and infectious diseases, especially in the treatment of AIDS. Cancer survival is just starting to make an impact as well. But how much additional longevity can we expect to gain by piling even more medical care on healthy individuals?

Read more »

Poem from the Calamity Jane Chronicles

by Mara Jebsen

Good morning, Calamity Jane Imgres

–plenty disaster for breakfast again.

Staunching of blood. Stemming of tide. Not

enough Dutchboys with fingers in the dam. . .

Do Wake Up Calamity Jane. We are killing

even our favorites, again. Soldiers & small

flash-mouth boys. Pedestrian

death.—Plenty of martyr for our

coffers. or Coffins. Plenty…fodder for our

Martinis–I mean plenty…

Don't get muddled, Calamity Jane.

Terror's a river that rises again. Brace

for the hate that laps up the spine,

Stockpile dreams for a dryer time.



Now is the summer of our discontent.
Banned bombs,
Made in America,
once again rain down mercilessly
on the world’s largest open-air prison.
Photos of Raggedy Ann dolls
pulled out from Gaza’s burning debris
makes steeliest men sob.

How do middle-class Muslim youth
from Seattle to Srinagar
manage, to the extent they do,
their blind rage,
their helplessness
at the most compelling moral issue
of our generation:
the organized ethnic cleansing
of Palestinians,
as well their land
by the Zionists,
aided by the most mighty democracy?

you arm & enrich a colonial settler state,
inserted into Palestine
by Imperial design,
your cop on the beat in the Mid East
who assures the oil flows smoothly,
& despots keep the subjects quiet.

Read more »

Isis consolidates

Patrick Cockburn in the London Review of Books:

Cov3616As the attention of the world focused on Ukraine and Gaza, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) captured a third of Syria in addition to the quarter of Iraq it had seized in June. The frontiers of the new Caliphate declared by Isis on 29 June are expanding by the day and now cover an area larger than Great Britain and inhabited by at least six million people, a population larger than that of Denmark, Finland or Ireland. In a few weeks of fighting in Syria Isis has established itself as the dominant force in the Syrian opposition, routing the official al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, in the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor and executing its local commander as he tried to flee. In northern Syria some five thousand Isis fighters are using tanks and artillery captured from the Iraqi army in Mosul to besiege half a million Kurds in their enclave at Kobani on the Turkish border. In central Syria, near Palmyra, Isis fought the Syrian army as it overran the al-Shaer gasfield, one of the largest in the country, in a surprise assault that left an estimated three hundred soldiers and civilians dead. Repeated government counter-attacks finally retook the gasfield but Isis still controls most of Syria’s oil and gas production. The Caliphate may be poor and isolated but its oil wells and control of crucial roads provide a steady income in addition to the plunder of war.

The birth of the new state is the most radical change to the political geography of the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot Agreement was implemented in the aftermath of the First World War. Yet this explosive transformation has created surprisingly little alarm internationally or even among those in Iraq and Syria not yet under the rule of Isis. Politicians and diplomats tend to treat Isis as if it is a Bedouin raiding party that appears dramatically from the desert, wins spectacular victories and then retreats to its strongholds leaving the status quo little changed. Such a scenario is conceivable but is getting less and less likely as Isis consolidates its hold on its new conquests in an area that may soon stretch from Iran to the Mediterranean.

More here.

Leo Tolstoy Creates a List of the 50+ Books That Influenced Him Most

Colin Marshall in Open Culture:

Tolstoy1War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilyich — many of us have felt the influence, to the good or the ill of our own reading and writing, of Leo Tolstoy. But whose influence did Leo Tolstoy feel the most? As luck would have it, we can give you chapter and verse on this, since the novelist drew up just such a list in 1891, which would have put him at age 63. A Russian publisher had asked 2,000 professors, scholars, artists, and men of letters, public figures, and other luminaries to name the books important to them, and Tolstoy responded with this list divided into five ages of man, with their actual degree of influence (“enormous,” “v. great,” or merely “great”) noted. It comes as something of a rarity, up to now only available transcribed in a post at Northampton, Massachusetts’ Valley Advocate:


Childhood to the age of 14 or so

The story of Joseph from the Bible – Enormous

Tales from The Thousand and One Nights: the 40 Thieves, Prince Qam-al-Zaman – Great

The Little Black Hen by Pogorelsky – V. great

Russian byliny: Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets, Alyosha Popovich. Folk Tales – Enormous

Puskin’s poems: Napoleon – Great

Age 14 to 20

Matthew’s Gospel: Sermon on the Mount – Enormous

Sterne’s Sentimental Journey – V. great

Rousseau Confessions – Enormous

Emile – Enormous

Nouvelle Héloise – V. great

Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin – V. great

More here.