Saturday, November 28, 2015

Why Learn Math?

Jesus must have been a difficult fellow with whom to have a conversation. In the gospels' accounts of Him, He responds to questions with parables about goats and vineyards and bridegrooms. I can only imagine the circuitous answer I might get from Him if He were the concierge at a hotel and I was urgently looking for the bathroom. Blessed is he who wets his pants waiting for the Lord to get to the point.

His disciples asked him why he spoke in riddles to people. In His own defense, Jesus said this about why he spoke in parables: "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing, they may not see, and hearing, they may not hear." (Luke 8:10)

Galileo wrote about 1500 years later: "Mathematics is the alphabet with which God has written the universe."

And yet many of us still ask why Nature has chosen to reveal herself to us in the confounding and convoluted language of mathematics.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Next Generation

A few weeks ago, I had a chat with a young lady from Brazil about how technology will affect the behaviors of kids just being born now. She argued quite strongly that screens and digital content would almost completely supplant more traditional mediums.

I agree with her. I don't honestly think people will be purchasing DVDs in 20 year's time. I give the movie industry that much time to get it together on the digital front, and for the inertia of ingrained technologies to erode.

The one small point we differed on was books. Now, this girl was about 10 years younger than me, in her early twenties. She felt that a child of age 5 now would never feel inclined to buy a book once they became an adult, in favor of a computer or e-reader. I asked her if she was aware of the glacial pace at which new technologies proliferate into our public education system.

"How do you feel about physical, printed books?" I asked her.

"I love them," she said. "I must have books. But the children now, they won't have any books. It will change a lot."

What I had trouble explaining to her (I don't speak Portuguese) was that about 5 years ago, when she was still in high school, people my age were having conversations about how kids in high school don't read books anymore.

She's absolutely right that technology will change the future, but I'm not worried about the loss of physical books. The very reason I try to read books is to keep my mind agile. If, in the distant future, books have been completely outmoded, I hope to be too busy trying to learn something off of whatever replaced books to be moping around coffee shops complaining to the young people about the death of books.

In truth, I'm more concerned about social forces that might lead to the outlawing of books. There was a trove of information in Alexandria's library that was completed eradicated. The Mayans had several thousand books, and the Spanish priests did a pretty good job of destroying all but three of them. My hope is, books or not, that the body of knowledge we've amassed as a species over the past few hundred years is preserved.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Culture Change

I have little say about the details surrounding the Climate Change debate that's ongoing in the public sphere. I'm not undecided on the issue, but to borrow from Homer Simpson: "Facts are meaningless, you can use facts to prove anything that's remotely true!"

What rouses my curiosity is the nature of the stances people take. On either side of the debate, at the extremes, are people who seem to believe in one conspiracy or another; it's either the oil companies trying to cover something up, or the environmentalists pumping up a non-issue for glory and money. So many people have an opinion which, by the very necessity of its own design, stands in direct opposition to the conspiracy theory to which they've subscribed.

On its own, this poses a problem; our opinions on these matters should be informed by reason, and not swayed by a group of people in irrational opposition with whom you feel you identify. But my concern rises when this gives way to finality. It's fair for a person to express their opinion and say, "I don't believe climate change is an issue we need to address"; the qualification this statement needs is "right now". Perhaps climate change is not an issue that needs addressing; perhaps the opportunity cost of addressing climate change, in favor of other global problems, is too high; perhaps there's something else.

But to assert that you have the final answer, to say of the issue, "This is the way the issue is, so let's close the books entirely on this one", that kind of statement is predicated on an assumption that isn't true in the world: staticity. I've learned to mistrust the small amount of information I've consciously retained from grade school. Hesitancy to trust one's memory is a good rule of thumb, but moreover, much of this information has changed radically since I learned it.

More importantly, this glosses over the fact that this is a complicated issue. Which part of the "climate change conspiracy" do you disagree with? How it will affect the oceans? How it will affect agriculture? How will the agricultural effects be different in Brazil compared to Nepal, given different crops and methods of farming? How will it affect the atmosphere? And so on. The issue is nuanced, and it is dangerous to be dismissive of the whole, when any one of the parts might need serious consideration.

It is of course also fair to assert your opinion the other way, but the same danger still holds: that you fall back mostly on what you learned yesterday, and don't update your path forward based on present new information. We should be cautious about the infrastructure we invest in to deal with climate change, and careful to invest in ways that maximize human well-being. I've come to feel that it is an issue we as a civilization should be addressing, but like any layman, I have no idea wherehow, or how much

Hubris is a universal constant in human nature, but it's been my observation the average scientist tends to be much more adept at considering and incorporating new information than the average climate change "denier". In terms of climate change, this alone is evidence of nothing, except that I respect a culture of people willing to periodically question their own ideas over one that doesn't. This is of immeasurable utility: even when the issue is too technical for me to understand, I can use the proportions of these cultures on each side of the debate, as a proxy, to assess the likely quality of their conclusions.

Thursday, August 27, 2015


A few months ago, I drove around 2500 miles across the United States. The trip went remarkably smooth, save for a small patch of traffic we hit in the middle of Missouri. The highway was closed, so all traffic was diverted onto a two-lane side road...traffic which included several semi-trucks.

The reaction to the delay, and the glacial pace of the massive trucks, was evident from the behavior of the drivers in the cars. They jerked around the trucked, whizzed ahead of them and cut them off, tailgated them in a manner that only indicates frustration. Cars seemed relatively polite with other cars, but trucks were like an alien body amidst a group of white blood cells.

The thought that I had at the time concerned the drivers in the trucks, and their cargo. The fact is, the trucks on our Interstates are carrying our stuff to us. They are the reason we can get those Amazon Prime boxes so quickly. As long as our schools need shipments of food to their cafeterias, the problems of truck drivers are our problems.

The issue is, we don't see it this way. Inside the metal enclosure of our car, we see the world, and the others in it, through glass. It's like being in a bubble: everything is filtered. We start to take the perspective that what's happening in the world outside the car is happening to us, and causes us to ignore the simple fact that is simply happening. We focus on fixing our own perceived woes, instead of considering the larger situation.

All those angry or frustrated drivers might be right: perhaps our highways are too congested due to the sheer volume of our logistical system. Maybe we should consume 50% less Coca-Cola in Los Angeles over the next 5 years so X number of trucks don't have to drive around stocking machines and convenience stores. Maybe this, or some kind of action, will improve things. (Although I doubt this in particular would help, since I suspect traffic in LA follows Parkinson's law; namely, that number of cars on the road will increase to fill any available lane space.)

That's all a hypothetical, but in order for any progress to be made, systems like this have to be considered at this level, involving stakeholders who are in a position to effect change in the situation. Things like this do not get solved with sporadic individual complaints about personal discomfort or inconvenience.

If, individually, we're willing to invest so much energy into letting ourselves get frustrated while driving on crowded highways, then isn't there a theoretical surplus of energy that could be redirected and harnessed to solve any number of problems?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


As a virtue, I think that temperance is sorely underrated. In my recent trip to France, surrounded by people who wanted to give me copious amounts of absolutely delicious food, I made an effort to translate the word "temperance" into French. There seems to be no equivalent, even a word that describes the concept.

People focus their efforts to get healthier on diets. I've have never tried any of these diets, but most of the major ones with which I'm acquainted are primarily centered about what instead of how much. Even if smaller portions is part of the regimen, this is often secondary to the content of the portions.

A well-designed web page is more pleasant than browse than one with poor design, but no amount of good design skills would save a web page that is cluttered to surfeit, without a guiding sense of purpose. Good nutrition is important, but that single factor must not be pursued with an obedience blind to quantity.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Ransacking the Pyramids

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, there have been reports of looting in Egypt. People desperate for money have been ransacking archaeological artifacts from museums and selling them over the Internet. Even worse, tombs in Egypt are being dug up as people delve for items that they can sell for money to feed their families.

There are also reports of widespread looting in Syria, where ISIS is doing a lot of the looting in order to fund their terrorist efforts.

Apart from wanting to curtail the efforts of ISIS, why should anyone in the Western world care about this?

The New Testament, as we know it today, wasn't written by a single author and given to us in its entirety. It is, instead, a collection of writings penned by several authors that were selected from a larger collection of writings. That is, the books of the New Testament were curated. For example, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were included, while those of Thomas, Philip and Mary Magdelene were excluded. The Apocalypse of John (which we call "Revelations") was included, while the Apocalypse of Peter was not.

The early Christian church decided which of the writings were canonical (included in the New Testament) and which were non-canonical. Several of the non-canonical writings that were not included are classified as the so-called "gnostic gospels". While many of the gnostic writings cover the teachings of Jesus, and share a lot of common ground with the canonical writings, they were excluded because they were ideologically at odds with the teachings of the "orthodox" Christian church. People who possessed them were rejected as heretics, and an extensive effort was made to eliminate them.

We've known for a long time now that these writings existed, because the people who sought to destroy all the copies of them in the first few centuries after the death of Jesus mentioned them in their own writings. The contents of these non-canonical scriptures, however, is something we've only been able to guess at, for the most part, based on what those who tried to destroy them have said about them.

In 1945, a couple of Egyptian farmers were digging for fertilizer near the city of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. They accidentally uncovered a large glass container that contained several scrolls of ancient documents. Historians later established that these codexes contained several copies of non-canonical Christian scriptures.

Historians believe that these were buried near Nag Hammadi during the 4th century A.D. The reason seems easy to deduce: someone fled with copies of the gnostic documents as the orthodox church was destroying them, and buried them in the hopes that someone would uncover them several years later.

The 20th century was the century of archaeology. Arguably, one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of that century was that of the Nag Hammadi documents. There was also the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls about ten years later, which offer the same historical significance and potential insight to those who study the old Hebrew scriptures as the Nag Hammadi documents offer to those studying the canonical New Testament scriptures.

The implication is clear: major world religions are not static entities. While it might be convenient to think that we understand everything about the stories of Moses and Jesus, it's often difficult to glean spiritual understanding of the teachings of the prophets and the stories in scriptures without an understanding of the historical context. There's a lot we don't know about the time periods when the prophets lived. Egypt and Syria, among other countries, are two regions in which Judaism and Christianity established themselves.

In essence, the artifacts that the looters are digging up and distributing via online sales to people all over the world is almost certainly destroying the pieces of a puzzle which, when studied and analyzed, might give us answers to questions about us, major religions, and ancient civilizations that we haven't even thought to ask yet. Much of this destruction is probably irreversible.

The discoverers of the Nag Hammadi documents didn't know what they had uncovered. A handful of pages were burned by one of their mothers back at home as kindling. Those that weren't burned were sold off for a pittance individually, which left archaeologists scrambling for the next 20 years to track down and recover all of them. It's not hard to imagine that the current looters in Egypt are digging up artifacts of similar historical and religious significance and selling them to collectors on eBay, setting up future archaeologists with the Herculean task of finding and piecing Humpty back together again.

Many of the looters admit to feeling bad about this. They concede that they are robbing from their own cultural history to feed themselves and their families, but given the economic circumstances in these countries, feel that they have little choice in the matter. That some of these looters are using the proceeds from these sales to fund terrorist activities only compounds how atrocious this is.

In the 2010 animated film Despicable Me, an aspiring supervillain named Vector ("I commit crimes with both direction and magnitude!") steals a pyramid from Egypt and replaces it with an inflatable look-a-like. In the film, the world is horrified to see this crime reported on the news, and is in awe of the new villain with the audacity to steal a significant piece of ancient history.

Later that year after the film came out, the uprising in Egypt began. In its wake and the accompanying economic downturn, the region has seen the proliferation of hoards of "mini-Vectors" who steal pieces of this same history for financial gain. A contemporary riddle of the Sphinx might well be: why do we, as a species, care so little that this is occurring, and why aren't we doing more to stop it?

Monday, March 9, 2015


"If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would it be?"

History has an extremely small proportion of great men and women who are remembered for their deeds and ideas. Far more numerous are the multitudes who pass away into insignificance.

The past is rife with individuals who, though we don't remember them, or even know who they are, chose to give up their lives. Sometimes this is meant literally, and sometimes this is figurative, in the sense that they gave up pursuing their own desires during their lifetimes. In many cases, they sacrificed in the hopes that the generations that came after them might have a better life than they did, even when recognition or glory weren't an option.

I would ask to have dinner with one of these men or women, who lived and died in total obscurity. To spend an hour or two learning who they were and what mattered to them seems meager repayment.