Archive for March, 2006

Fun with polyhedra

Fun with polyhedra

If you ever wanted to get a sneak peek at how graduate students in mathematics waste time, well, now’s your chance.

Jeunes radicaux? Au contraire

I have been solicited for my impressions of students at the Sorbonne, since I was one of them for a year and they are currently in the news. As for the specific issues they are protesting about, this article gives a decent voice to my general reaction. The thing is though, students at the Sorbonne are always demonstrating about something. Pretty much on a weekly basis people would be handing out really amazingly overly detailed flyers about every single proposed governmental change in the university system. Several times I couldn’t get on or off of metro trains because of student protests on the metro platforms themselves. One time when I was waiting for a friend at Place Montparnasse I got between a bunch of protesters and the cops, and I was somewhat concerned that the police were going to think I was a demonstrator as well and detain me.

So basically this is part of everyday life, which seems very strange because this whole element doesn’t even exist for the most part on campuses in the States. It’s not that there aren’t activists or that everyone is apathetic, but I think the difference is that in France absolutely everything is under the purvew of the national government, so there aren’t really any intermediate levels or methods of recourse short of getting on TV or signing a petition (not that I’m saying that those are). And of course conscientious recruitment and organization of students by political parties has always been more prevalent in France.

To be honest, I am sympathetic to basic anxiety about lack of job security, since I don’t have much of a taste for the entrepreneurial way of life myself. But I’m not convinced that that is the most important underlying motivation in all of this. It seems that especially in France any form of economic liberalization has become so identified with “Anglo-Saxon” hegemony that making any concessions in that direction has come to be seen as almost tantamount to admitting the inferiority of the French system to the American or the British. Of course you might argue that those cocerns are both ridiculously inflated and beside the point. But there is something to the endless claims for the merits of French-style group cohesiveness and communal spirit, as anyone would surely agree after comparing the efficiency of the Paris Métro with, say, the London Tube. And I would venture to extend that superiority to most areas of communal endeavor, like public transportation and healthcare. But it’s more a Darwinian question: will French society have enough money to keep subsidizing the educational system and maintaining labor restrictions with no reforms? That is the question that few people seem to be asking among the all the talk about “justice” and “égalité.” I mean, Russians might like the précarité of capitalism even less than life in the late Soviet era, but it’s not like they have much of a choice. They didn’t have the means to keep financing the old system whether they liked it or not.

Conspiracy deluxe (now with smug math references)

The following was intended to be a direct response to a couple of statements in Curt’s last post, but, as these things tend to do, the direct response quickly metastasized into a rambling diatribe only tangentially related to the initial impetus. So, never one to lose an opportunity to pad my post count, I’m pulling it out of its original destination in the comment box and posting it here for all to see, comment on and, if need be, snicker quietly under their breath.

Would complicity in 9/11 change your estimation of the American government’s valuation of human life and liberty?

In the sense that I have a hard time accepting the concept that an institution as massive as the federal government even has a coherent “valuation of human life and liberty”, no. But, even if you think that George W. Bush is Satan’s person knob-polisher, he didn’t personally orchestrate the entire thing even if we accept the hypothesis that he (or Cheney, or whoever) is ultimately behind it, so in the sense that rather a lot of people, presumably not all sociopaths, would have had to have been involved, it would be quite troubling.

In both cases, the assumption seems to be that there are only two possible theories, so any nagging inconsistencies or incompleteness in one theory is implicitly support for the other. The towers falling straight down so quickly or life getting started in the first place might be problematic for the conventional explanations, but they are not really positive evidence that God exists or that the U.S. government blew up its own buildings.

I’ve spent rather a lot of time interacting with “conspiracy theorists”, so I think I’m qualified to say that this is a somewhat inaccurate caricature. Are there some conspiracy theorists who see the nefarious USG behind any unusual or hard-to-explain occurrences with bad results? Of course. Are there more who always blame evil Republicans for 9/11, global warming, cold winters and bad television? Absolutely. But there are plenty who were/are at least moderately more rational. To extend the towers-falling-straight-down example, some pursued a thought process more or less like the following: first, questioning (more or less idly, at least initially) whether the towers falling straight down was a plausible outcome given the purported circumstances, then deciding that the circumstances as stated weren’t a plausible explanation, then questioning what set of circumstances would have led to the indisputable result of both towers collapsing straight down and then, finally, in most (but not all) cases embracing some alternative set of circumstances that would be more plausible.

It’s instructive to point out that the conspiracy theories tend, on the whole, to lose their coherence at this last stage. The controlled demolition theory is popular, but by no means universal; there are those who are convinced the planes were loaded with missiles, or that they were drogues full, not of passengers, but of high explosives, or whatever. Oh, sure, most blame the thing on the government, but, assuming one accepts the reasoning in the above paragraph as more or less sane, there’s no escaping the fact that someone had to have placed the demolition charges or put missiles on the planes or flew the drogues or whatever your favorite explanation is and, really, it’s hard to think of any organization other than the USG that could have pulled any of those off. Unbelievable as it might seem to argue that the federal government placed, wired up, timed and ignited demolition charges in three separate buildings (don’t forget WTC 7) without anyone noticing (which, given the precision required would be rather a hard thing to do), it’s orders of magnitude more difficult to believe that the Mafia or the Chinese or even al Qaeda could have done it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, provided one thinks more is going on than meets the eye, involving the government in your explanation (though perhaps not actively) is more or less inevitable.

Note that I’m not necessarily endorsing this particular line of reasoning; I’m just saying it’s not as cracked out as it might first seem. In broad outline the path to becoming a conspiracy theorist isn’t terribly unreasonable: something seems fishy, seek alternative explanation, recognize alternative explanation requires additional participants with significant resources and opportunity, deduce participation of local actor with most of both. Any particular deduction of a conspiracy theory almost certainly rests on questionable assumptions, but that’s likely to be the case even for a true conspiracy theory, since a conspiracy theorist is, by definition, someone not in on the conspiracy.

At this point a number of “conspiracy theorists” of my acquaintance point out that the official explanation is itself a conspiracy theory in that it seeks to explain what happened by means of a secret conspiracy: in this case, of Arab fanatics. This is, presumably, intended to justify alternative theories by putting them on the same level as the official one (whether by raising up the alternatives or by dragging down the official explanation I leave up to you); semantics, granted, but sometimes semantics are important. Of course, this means that, be the official explanation never so true, it’s likely to suffer the same defects as any other conspiracy theory; it would actually be much more troubling if the official explanation explained everything perfectly, since this would imply that either the people who came up with it were themselves a part of the conspiracy or that they were able to perfectly reconstruct rather a lot of events that were only observed by people who are now dead. The conspiracy-minded response to this observation is obvious and the ensuing recursivity is left as a simple exercise for the reader.

At this point any freshman English teacher could tell you that I ought to end with some sort of coherent conclusion that ties all of the above together, but I guess the point is that I don’t have one. I do think there are some suspicious aspects of the official theory, but an inevitable consequence of the above exercise is that at least some such difficulties are a priori inevitable, especially when one takes into account the equally inevitable mixture of incompetence, corruption and coincidence. On the other hand, there are some aspects of various “conspiracy theories” which sound compelling at least to a non-expert like myself. So there.

Are conspiracy theorists creationists or are creationists conspiracy theorists?

I vote for the latter, but only because it sounds more entertaining when you put it that way. The only reason I mention it is because of this article in New York which pretty exhaustively catalogues the more popular 9/11 conspiracy theories. I have no idea whether there is any truth to any of them, and much like the whole brouhaha about the The Da Vinci Code, I’m not sure what difference it would make. I mean, would covering up Jesus’ marriage really change a rational person’s estimation of the Catholic Church’s commitment to truth and honesty? Would complicity in 9/11 change your estimation of the American government’s valuation of human life and liberty? I think one would have a better chance defending them from these charges on grounds of incompetence than benevolence, but that’s just me. I’m inclined to agree with the investment banker who says: “I can see them wishing it would happen, secretly happy it did. But on purpose? Look at the way they’ve managed Iraq. They’re boobs. They couldn’t have pulled off 9/11 without getting caught. Not possible.?

Anyway, I find the whole thing more interesting from a sociological point of view. The mindset among the conspiracy theorists is exactly like the Intelligent Design arguments we hear tossed around. In both cases, the assumption seems to be that there are only two possible theories, so any nagging inconsistencies or incompleteness in one theory is implicitly support for the other. The towers falling straight down so quickly or life getting started in the first place might be problematic for the conventional explanations, but they are not really positive evidence that God exists or that the U.S. government blew up its own buildings. Those seem more like the problems which will complicate any ultimate explanation unless one brings in some shadowy, elusive and omnipotent or near-omnipotent entities/organizations. And that’s the other characteristic they share. The idea of God or a government with essentially unlimited powers dissolves all the problems. Of course they can do this or that, because they can do anything! And our government really is God in the theology of 9/11 conspiracy theorists. I know a lot of people that think Bush is way too obsessed with God, but I don’t know anyone who actually thinks he is God (well, the conspiracy theorists don’t seem to think he’s really in charge either, but you get the rhetorical point).

Naturally I find this all very amusing (but sad), because a good number of the same people that laugh at (or, more likely, verbally abuse) religious people for refusing to accept any of the ambiguity or loose ends in evolutionary theory without interposing a Creator are using the slightest uncertainties or unresolved issues surrounding 9/11 as positive proof that the whole thing was a put-up job by the U.S. government. Maybe they are just looking to fill that need for grandiose, intricate theologies that they created when they threw out their religious upbringing. Either way, I suspect the Stonecutters did it.

p.s. Speaking of Intelligent Design and amusing ironies, these people talking about the anthropic principle makes it sound like just that, in a suitably detached academic sort of way. It must be especially galling to the atheists and “secularists” who are trying to pretend that there is a united scientific front against any sort of covert creationism that even front-line theoretical physicists are playing around with these ideas (in John Polkinghorne or Frank Tipler’s cases, not even concealing the religious implications).

p.p.s. Finally this article finally asks in print a question that I must have asked myself a thousand times when I was living in Paris: “This is the nation [France] that invented style — or the nation with the good sense to bother claiming to have invented style. The English language hasn’t even got a word for chic. So the greatest marvel of all is why the nation as a whole exhibits so little of either” (qualification: she goes on to compare English style positively with the French, which let’s just say is not exactly an opinion I share–both sides of the North Atlantic seaboard are kind of black holes are pretty moribund in terms of women’s dress in my experience).

Oops

If anyone tried to post a comment in the last couple of days that impudently vanished into the ether, I apologize. A rather determined spate of comment-spamming caused me to get somewhat overzealous in my blacklisting of potential spam comments and I accidentally blacklisted all comments. Comments should now be working again, so, if you’re not too annoyed, please do re-submit anything you may have tried to post recently.

P.S. Pro-Football-Reference‘s Doug Drinen, good buddy of J.C. and member of my former department Well, “my” to the extent that an undergrad is ever really a member of a department has a new blog. Check it out.

Links and things

It’s been a week since I put it up, so I figured I ought to give some explanation of the “Linklist” that I’ve added to the main page. I haven’t tested it in IE, but, when you hover your mouse over the logo, a dropdown list of links to various stuff around the web is supposed to appear (if it doesn’t, you can always just click the logo and be taken to another version of the list).

A linklog is something I’ve played around with before but was never entirely satisfied with how it worked. Since, these days, I usually don’t have time to write posts but still occasionally come across interesting links that I would like to share, this seems like a reasonable compromise.

It’s implemented entirely in CSS (with some Javascript only to fix the fact that IE doesn’t fully implement all of CSS) patterned after A List Apart’s Suckerfish Dropdowns. I wanted a dropdown because I wanted to add some daily links to the main page without cluttering the thing (let’s just say we’ve been down that road before); since that’s impossible, the next best thing would seem to be to make it cluttered only when you want it to be. And CSS over JavaScript (the usual way to implement dropdowns) is obvious, since JavaScript is evil. → Since I’m doing some housekeeping anyway, I should point out that the Tools and Photographs pages have been updated recently and there’s now a crude site zeitgeist at the bottom of the main page.

I’m actually somewhat proud of the background image (which is a modified photo of the blackboard in my office) and the button (which has a virtually-invisible Hopf link in the background), but I’m not entirely sure I’m happy with this particular implementation. One problem is that I can’t seem to get the background image under 180 KB without sacrificing its subtle transparency (which I’d rather not), which sucks for anybody still (horrors!) on dialup. Also, grey is relatively unobtrusive, which I want, but also sorta, well, grey and boring. So if you have any suggestions for how to make it look better, let me know.

Anyway, as for the implementation of the links themselves, they’re collected using Spurl, which is one of the myriad social bookmarking sites out there. Well, that’s not entirely true; I’ve got my Spurl account set up to forward everything along to del.icio.us (another social bookmarking site). Then I’m republishing the RSS feed to my del.icio.us account using the feedList plugin for WordPress.

Why all the contortions? Because it actually makes everything really easy. Rather than having to fire up ecto (or, God forbid, WordPress’s editor) every time I want to post a link (which is what I did the last time I tried this linklog experiment), I just hit the “Spurl!” button on my toolbar whenever I read something interesting, fill in category and tags and write a short description, and the rest is automatic. And scraping an RSS feed is better than going the JavaScript route because, again, JavaScript is evil.

So why am I scraping the del.icio.us feed rather than the Spurl feed? That gets into the heart of the distinctions between Spurl and del.icio.us. They’re both nice tools, but they do different things well. Spurl allows both descriptions and automatically-included snips and maintains links in rigid categories, which makes for better posting. Plus, it saves a copy of all my links, which allows full-text search and eliminates linkrot problems. All of these things make it the much better choice if you ever want to go back and actually find and read some link you came across six months ago. del.icio.us, on the other hand, takes the “social” part of “social bookmarking” much more seriously: del.icio.us makes it extremely easy to see who else made note of the links that you did (which is a great way of finding other interesting links), allows much more flexible bundling of tags and produces far more customizable means of republishing. So, even though I’m essentially posting the same links to both places and both Spurl and del.icio.us serve nominally the same purpose, I’m actually using them in quite different and complementary ways.

And yes, I know these things have been around for a while. Hell, I’ve had a Furl account for almost two years. But, by itself, del.icio.us is pretty limited and it wasn’t until recently that I discovered Spurl (which implements all the good things about Furl and some extras besides).

Anyway, speaking of innovation (to the extent that the above comprises innovation) and the linklist, I would like to draw your attention to one link I posted there yesterday: the OnMac.net Wiki, which gives extraordinarily detailed (given that the technique was only made public in the last week) instructions for installing Windows XP on one of the new Intel-based Macs. Let’s just say that, for me, this is practically a dream come true. I’ve been a Mac user and owner for close to seven years and love the dependability of Apple’s hardware and the usefulness of (most of) their software.

In fact, the only complaint I have is that some software just doesn’t run on OS X and emulators generally aren’t worth the trouble (though Q looks interesting if they ever add more features). And I’m not talking about games; I’m thinking more along the lines of device drivers, file uploaders and various cutting-edge apps. So a dual-boot Mac/Windows machine would be excellent (Linux stuff I can, generally speaking, do in OSX’s terminal or Darwin’s X11 environment). I’ll definitely be looking into a MacBook (though hopefully they’ll have come up with a less committee-ized name by then) when they get the second or third generation rolling.

(Incidentally, I think Apple’s made the smart move in not trying to prevent people from dual-booting Windows from their Macs: this development will only encourage more people to buy Macs. If Microsoft is smart, they’ll do the same, since that’s the only way they’ll get any money out of me or a lot of other people like me. Not that I have any particular animus for Microsoft, but, though I’m as aware of the shortcomings of both OSX and Linux as anybody this side of drunkenbatman, seven years without the blue screen of death or any major hardware or software failures coupled with seven years of long-distance troubleshooting for my PC-owning parents has ensured that I’ll never voluntarily go back to a Windows-only lifestyle)

Manifold man

A good summary of the current direction of research in behavioral economics is available here. For the most part I think this trend is a pretty valid one in analyzing economic behavior, although for me personally the concept of rational “economic man” is a bit of a straw man, insofar as I always took it to be more of a conceptual ideal than an actual description of the way people behave. And, in addition, it seems to me that it is not just a matter of rationality in many of the examples of “irrational” economic behavior. It seems to me that rationality basically consists of acting and thinking in accordance with one’s goals and values. Obviously one would be inclined to see someone else as irrational for not acting in accordance with one’s own ideas even if they are acting consistently with their own.

Now, if one presumes that increasing one’s own wealth is the basic goal in life, then it is easy to see a whole gamut of common behaviors, from altruism to revenge, as irrational. But I believe that human desires are often a bit more complicated than this, or at least more indirect. Altruism may be inexplicable from a wealth-amassing perspective, but it follows logically from, and in fact is most often necessary to, most ethical systems. And even in terms of pure self-interest the neo-Darwinians have convincingly demonstrated a variety of scenarios in which it is beneficial. Or take the example from the article of people refusing to accept some amount of money from someone else who would take an unfairly larger share for themselves. Maybe from the perspective of wealth some money is better than none, but in terms of social status the accepting party would in a sense be accepting a subordinate position relative to the donor. By refusing the money an equality between the two is maintained, or the refusal could even serve as a bargaining chip to increase their share if negotiation or multiple offers are permitted in the scenario. Thus, in these instances the seemingly irrational behavior could be conducted according to a different set of principles, or they could be ways of seeking out long-term economic benefit beyond the immediate situation. This is not to say that some behaviors are not better than others at procuring economic benefits than others, but it requires a broad, long view to evaluate these. And beyond that, there is a kind of implicit judgment in the word “irrational” that all the behaviors so described are the result of ignorance, prejudice or inferior intelligence, which seems to me to indicate a rather narrow-minded view of human motivation.

Belief in chicken gravy necessary to life?

In the process of tsk-tsking the practitioners of “quantum mysticism” Dennis Overbye regurgitates an even more pervasive cliché:

“Take free will. Everything I know about physics and neuroscience tells me it’s a myth. But I need that illusion to get out of bed in the morning. Of all the durable and necessary creations of atoms, the evolution of the illusion of the self and of free will are perhaps the most miraculous. That belief is necessary to my survival.”

I think the question is worth asking: does anyone actually think this way? I’m not just asking rhetorically, because after all I don’t know. The only person I can speak for is myself. But I would venture to say that not a single day of my life have I ever woken up and thought: “Shit, if I don’t have free will I have no reason to get up!” Free will does not really yield to that kind of mental debate, since the only way it makes the slightest bit of difference is if you actually do have it. So in other words even to ask the question as a practical matter is to already presuppose the answer. Personally I don’t have any belief in free will the way most people do, but I don’t think the alternative is determinism either. I don’t think either one really makes sense. It seems to me more likely that our bodies are a series of interconnected physical systems of which the whole mental world of thoughts and perceptions are a side-product. When I am sick I tend to feel depressed, when healthy I generally have a contented outlook on the world. Maybe it makes people feel like ideas are more significant when they attribute these big unsubstantiated material consequences to them. In any case, I have heard far too many people take for granted that various widely but by no means universally held beliefs like God, free will, etc. are somehow intrinsic and necessary to life. Well, there are plenty of ontological agnostics out there, and they seem to manage to carry on.

Las Vegas? Ah, too many kids

A suprisingly intelligent debate between Francis Fukuyama and Bernard-Henri Lévy. Lévy is I suppose what passes for a “pro-American” European intellectual, that is someone who generally likes the influence American culture and policy has on the world, but doesn’t seem to care too much for the reality of American society on its home turf. Which is what their randomly sparring about Las Vegas is about in my mind. Fukuyama sort of gets trapped defending Las Vegas as an expression of the American frontier model, the freedom that allows people to conjure up a metropolis of opportunity and entertainment out of thin air. The obvious riposte, which Lévy dutifully provides, is that the fruit of opportunity and freedom is pretty meager, if this is what it is. But this is actually a larger problem for Lévy and idealists of his ilk. They like the idea of America as some huge liberating force wandering around the world unshackling people from the oppression of tyrannical governments and so forth. But what do people do when they have been liberated, when they have money, leisure and a relative amount of freedom? The go vacation in Las Vegas. So what’s so great about freedom? I might turn that around by asking, what’s so bad about Vegas? And might I suggest that if one is particularly appalled by Las Vegas it might be time to start revising one’s expectations of the human race? I don’t buy into the idea that it is uniquely representative of the country, or even that most people go there. I’ve never been, nor have most of my family or friends. But by the same token, what people do there is not exactly unique to America. Try Amsterdam, or Thailand.

So Lévy looks at America and sees it in a positive light in a negative sense, so to speak. He sees how it has nullified totalitarianism in various parts of the world, has alleviated misery, but he doesn’t seem to think people live in all that great of a way here. The result is a kind of disconnect which I think is one of the almost inevitable pitfalls of observing a foreign culture. The temptation is to see it as a counter-point to one’s own, but not as its own discrete reality. One thinks: “if we could only graft this this and this characteristic onto our own civilization, it would be super.” But then it is easy to forget that maybe certain of those positive qualities are intimately connected to less desirable traits. Many Americans for example think it’s great how much more present history is in European culture than in American, and how much more versed in it people tend to be. But doesn’t that often go hand in hand with the “blood, soil, roots” mentality that Fukuyama and Lévy both condemn as xenophobic? Or, to take another example, I love the poetry and mysticism which seem endemic to Russian culture, but am I thinking about living there long-term? Mightn’t that lack of practicality which is such a refreshing change for an American actually be a bigger problem? So maybe there is more and more a melding of cultures in the world, but one cannot simply cherry-pick attributes–at the root of it all are certain fundamental relationships between the individual and the collective which order all of these secondary traits.

The miasma of “truth” in art

I have pretty much nothing to say about the Academy Awards and the current wave of “political” films that are winning all the awards, which manage to surpass even the Passion of the Christ/Fahrenheit 9-11 brouhaha from a couple of years ago for phony hype. But I will say that this little piece by Annie Proulx, the writer of the original Brokeback Mountain story, makes a couple of valid points, despite being what she acknowledges to be a “Sour Grapes Rant” and even though I find it very entertaining when representatives of competing politically correct interest groups try to brand each other intolerant reactionaries (Crash is apparently the pick of “conservative” yokels). But she does bring up a good point about Hollywood acting which I’ve never been able to understand:

“Hollywood loves mimicry, the conversion of a film actor into the spittin’ image of a once-living celeb. But which takes more skill, acting a person who strolled the boulevard a few decades ago and who left behind tapes, film, photographs, voice recordings and friends with strong memories, or the construction of characters from imagination and a few cold words on the page?”

And it’s true–almost every year the biggest accolades get heaped on actors and actresses in biopics that manage to do the most convincing mimic jobs of real people with whom everyone is familiar. My theory is that no one would be able to get away with portraying an invented character like Truman Capote–everyone would criticize it as a gross caricature of homosexual intellectuals. And to me this speaks to a larger problem in the arts today, that no one is willing to accept anything the least bit out of the ordinary as “realistic” unless they have the assurance that it actually happened. That’s the real issue lurking in the background of the James Frey cases of the world. And when you have an overly bounded view of representational art, this is what rules–celebrity impersonations and fake “memoirs.”

p.s. Despite the sour grapes angle, and pace Slavoj Zizek, I agree with Proulx that Crash was “a safe pick of ‘controversial film,'” simply because homophobia is an acceptable mainstream attitude (at least in some parts of the country) in a way that racism isn’t. There is no way that prominent religious leaders and politicians could away with ranting about the evils of the dark races or whatever the way that many do about homosexuality. So the film honchos manage to basically insult America with their “best picture” award, and yet amazingly hedge their bets by honoring a film that whips yet again the shebboloth that dares not speak its name rather than one for which conservatives are still willing to rush to the barricades. Sanctimonious marketing at its finest.