Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Curse of Arthur Rhodes

In August, the Texas Rangers released veteran reliever Arthur Rhodes — once, long ago, a fireballing Oriole prospect, and always a favorite of mine.  Rhodes signed with the Cardinals, and is now, after 20 years in the majors, in the World Series for the first time, facing the team that dumped him two months ago.

Think the Rangers could have used one more bullpen arm last night?

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Cathy O’Neil is killing it

Some great recent posts from Mathbabe, the funniest and pissed-offiest “math, the universe, and everything” blog on the tubes:

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Applied Algebra Days this weekend in Madison

One of the exciting aspects of math at Wisconsin is the new emphasis on what I call “applied pure math” — that is, applied math that doesn’t involve PDEs or numerical analysis.  If you’re in town and want to see what this looks like, you can come to the first Applied Algebra Days conference, featuring Ronny Hadani, Pablo Parrilo, Olga Holtz, and lots of other interesting people.  And as an added bonus it’s in the shiny new Wisconsin Institutes for DiscoverySchedule hereAbstracts here.

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I say two sentences about the World Series on NPR

Transcript and recording here.

This was based on a much longer conversation.  I’ll just add that yes, not only do wild card teams not always get blown out, they sometimes win!  The larger point stands, though — if the pennant winners are drawn somewhat uniformly from the best four teams in the league, you’re more likely to have a mismatched World Series than you were in olden times, when the pennant winner was usually the best team in its league.

Here’s my old Slate piece on why the World Series should be stopped when one team goes up 3-0, but should go to best of 9 if the first six games split 3-3.

If you like Mike Pesca’s voice and you like smart sports talk, I highly recommend Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast.


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CJ asks the hard questions about The Wizard of Oz

CJ is listening to The Wizard of Oz on tape.  This morning he asked me:

“I understand why the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodsman don’t poop, but why don’t Dorothy, Toto, and the lion poop?”

“Why do you think they don’t poop?”

“They don’t mention them pooping, but they do mention them eating.”

I had to admit this was a good point.  I explained that in a book the author doesn’t have to mention every single thing a character does, especially things that don’t really affect the story.  CJ seemed satisfied with this.

Then about a minute later:

“In the movie do they poop?”


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In which Google+ is a good place to talk about math

Google+ may not have killed Facebook, but it is developing into a nice place for tearoom style chats about math; less formal than MathOverflow, more characters than FB.  This thread Allen Knutson started about circle packing is a case in point.  If I’m reading the thread and I say to myself “Matt Kahle should be weighing in on this,” I can just type in his name with a + prepended to it — and he’s summoned!  That’s a functionality that really doesn’t exist elsewhere.

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Show report: Man Man, High Noon, 18 Oct 2011

Are they a troop of monkeys?  Goons?  Are they sailors, lost and pissed?  Are they life coaches to each other and to us?  No one is given to know.  They are Man Man.



Stephen Pinker is a member of the intellectual elite

Via Crooked Timber, Stephen Pinker has a new book about the relative non-violence of modern times.  Interviewed by John Naughton in the Guardian about the new book, Pinker has this to say:

JN: One of the most intriguing tables in the book is the one on page 195, which takes the death toll from distant atrocities, estimates what proportion of the contemporary population that toll represents and then computes what the corresponding proportion of the mid-20th century population would be. So the Mongol conquests of the 13th century, for example, killed 40 million people, which corresponds to 278 million in 1950s terms. Now although 40 million is obviously a huge number, converting it into its modern equivalent makes one see it in a rather different light. Somewhere in the book you make a similar point about 9/11: the attacks killed 3,000 people, which of course is terrible at one level. But as a proportion of the US population, the death toll from the attack on the Twin Towers is, relatively speaking, infinitesimal. (That doesn’t mean, obviously, that those deaths did not have a devastating impact on the friends and families of those who died.) So maybe one reason why we have such a warped historical perspective on the history of violence is down to what you call “the innumeracy of our journalistic and intellectual culture”?

SP: I think that a failure of statistical thinking is the major intellectual shortcoming of our universities, journalism and intellectual culture. Cognitive psychology tells us that the unaided human mind is vulnerable to many fallacies and illusions because of its reliance on its memory for vivid anecdotes rather than systematic statistics. Yet pundits continue to hallucinate trends in freak events, like the Norwegian sniper (who shot all those young people on an island) and make wildly innumerate comparisons, such as between Afghanistan and Vietnam, or between today’s human trafficking and the African slave trade. It’s a holdover of the literary sensibilities of our science-flunking intellectual elite, who would be aghast if someone didn’t know who Milton was, but cheerfully flaunt their ignorance of basic science and mathematics. I lobbied – unsuccessfully – for a course requirement at Harvard in statistical and logical reasoning.

It’s remarkable how I can agree in every particular with what Pinker has to say here, yet find completely off-putting his way of expressing it.  It is true that quantitative argument in the public sphere is in a sorry state;  that our military apparatus has worked very hard over the years to minimize the role of indiscriminate slaughter as an instrument of foreign policy; that people could be much better than they are at pushing back against their cognitive biases, and could even stand to be formally trained in so doing.

But you know who’s in the intellectual elite?  Stephen Pinker! And me!  And lots of other scientists and mathematicians!  Do people really “cheerfully flaunt” their ignorance of science and math?  They do not — they apologize for it.  Because science and math carry intense prestige.  Go around saying “Society can get along fine without the study of literature” and you’re a hard-nosed realist willing to make tough choices in hard times.  Try it with “Society can get along fine without scientists and engineers” and you’re laughed out of town.

Or try this:  Stephen Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, spent a sabbatical year researching and writing a 700-page book about the history of the world over many centuries.  His book is being respectfully reviewed everywhere and he’s interviewed in the Guardian.  What if a historian spent a sabbatical year researching and writing a 700-page book about cognitive function in humans, animals, and machines?  Would you have heard about it?

Scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, the quantitative tribe, have a very loud voice, inside the university and outside.  We are the ones who shape the way the public thinks about quantitative questions, and we have a responsibility to use our power for good.

Oh yeah, and:  Harvard does have a quantitative reasoning requirement, and has for decades.  Pinker may take issue with the fact that you can meet this course requirement by taking calculus or linear algebra or passing a placement test, and I think there’s a reasonable case for that.  But his quote makes it sound as if Harvard thinks those subjects are expendable.  On the contrary:  it’s hard to graduate from Harvard without taking any science or math, and very easy to graduate without reading Milton, Shakespeare, or the Bible.

Update:  I forgot I wanted to include this little gem from Crooked Timber commenter William Timberman:

Without arguing whether or not we’ve outdone the Romans or the Huns, it does seem safe to say that we’ve become more and more adept at breaking eggs, yet the promised omelets seem no more forthcoming than they were in Roman times, and when they are, the list of invitations to dine on them has been just as rigorously limited.

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Why not data science?

Addendum to the previous post: if the goal — surely a worthwhile one — is to promote NSF-DMS funding for data sciences, why not change the name to Division of Mathematical and Data Sciences?  My experience at the very interesting “High-dimensional phenomena” workshop at IMA was that good work in this area is being done not only by self-described statisticians, but by mathematicians, computer scientists, and electrical engineers; it seems reasonable to use a name that doesn’t suggest the field is the property of a single academic department.

Also, a colleague points out to me that DMSS would inevitably pronounced “Dumbass.”  So there’s that.

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Division of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences

Apparently the NSF is considering changing the name of the DMS (Division of Mathematical Sciences) to DMSS (Division of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.)  There is some unease — surely at least partially related to the recent decision by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the NSF’s rough British analogue, to restrict their math postdoctoral program to cover applied probability and statistics only.  I can attest from personal experience that pure mathematicians are very excited about the rise of data science — but also concerned about it choking out K-theory and functional analysis and geometric group theory and etc and etc.

Here’s the letter from Eric Friedlander, current AMS president:

October 10, 2011

Dear Colleagues,

I write to encourage discussion and comments among members of the AMS about the proposal under consideration by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that NSF’s Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) be renamed the Division of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.  At the request of the NSF, I attach a letter from DMS Division Director Sastry Pantula advocating this name change; I also attach a particularly cogent response from a member of the AMS leadership.  

Please send your views and comments to
(The process to summarize comments is described below.)

Many of us strongly oppose this name change.  Such a name change could create an unnecessary and unfortunate divide in the mathematical sciences community.  We question whether this portends a shift within DMS away from support of basic research toward mission-oriented research.  This could bring the less mathematical aspects of Statistics into the same funding pool as basic research in Mathematical Sciences, thereby negatively impacting resources available for basic research in the Mathematical Sciences, including basic research in Statistics.

While waiting for NSF approval to consult the broad mathematical community, I have discussed this personally  with many mathematical scientists, including the leadership of the AMS.  The responses I have received have been near-unanimous in their opposition to such a name change.  It is significant that three previous DMS Division Directors Peter March, William Rundell, and Philippe Tondeur have written to express their opposition to this name change.

Permit me to give some reasons why such a name change is much more important than “just a name.”

1.)  The mission of the NSF is to fund basic research.  Much of
    mission-oriented Statistics is funded by other federal agencies,
    hospitals, industry, etc.  This name change suggests a move within
    DMS to relax its focus on basic research.
2.)  The suggestion of “new resources to all core programs” is far
    different from any commitment to seek new resources to support the
    basic research of these programs.
3.)  The current name (Division of Mathematical Sciences) was crafted to
    be inclusive.  The inclusiveness of DMS has resulted in increased
    funding for many programs including Statistics.  The Mathematical
    Sciences should work together, emphasizing commonality and presenting
    the best case for the importance of the Mathematical Sciences.
4.)  Statistics is only one of 10 programs supported by DMS.  In 2010, of
    the 2978 proposals submitted to DMS core programs, 242 were submitted
    to the Statistics program.  It is natural to ask why Statistics
    appears to be uniquely selected by DMS for special emphasis.
5.)  The analysis of big data is indeed important, and the Mathematical
    Sciences will play an important role in developing fundamental concepts
    and approaches to manage the “data deluge” and extract useful content.
    That said, National Science Foundation support of the Mathematical
    Sciences should energetically embrace basic research in all aspects
    of the Mathematical Sciences to advance fundamental knowledge and
    initiate unexpected revolutionary applications.

I encourage you to send your views and comments to

Our plan is to have a small AMS committee review comments received, prepare a summary of comments (names of responders would be suppressed), give this summary to the NSF, and post this summary on the AMS web page. We are asked to provide the NSF with an initial summary by mid-December, so please respond by December 1 if possible.  We also expect to have one or more forums at the Joint Mathematics Meeting in Boston in early January at which this name change will be discussed with NSF leaders.



Eric M. Friedlander
(President, AMS)

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