Thursday, April 15, 2021

Waste

Many people in the United States made sacrifices during the pandemic according to what health advice was given by experts at the time. One reason was to give the government bodies supposedly listening to those same experts the chance to do necessary things while people sort of stayed out of their way.

Naturally, as Leah Libresco Sargent notes here in a piece last month for The Week, the government botched their chance to do something and wasted the opportunity given them.

You have to wonder if some of this track record is behind people getting tired of mandates left and right and being told what to do by people who don't seem to know so well what they're doing.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Q: Is This an Easy Problem or a Hard Problem? A: Yes

I'm not 100% sure of the solution to a famous mathematical conjecture proposed by Paul Erdős some 50 years ago -- by which I mean I'm not sure I understand it. Even this relatively simple explanation at Quanta magazine quickly gets esoteric for one whose math skills drop off once we travel beyond arithmetic.

The thing I thought most interesting about the story was that Erdős and a couple of friends -- Vance Faber and Lászlo Lovász -- dreamed up this problem as intentionally one of the simplest they could think of during a tea party. They dallied with it a little at the party and set it aside to finish the next day. "The next day" turned out to be January 2021, as five mathematicians from the University of Birmingham -- Abishek Methuku, Dong-yeap Kang, Tom Kelly, Daniela Kühn and Deryk Osthus -- finally figured out a way to prove their answer to the Erdős -Faber-Lovász Conjecture.

Although Erdős died in 1996, both Faber and Lovász are still living and congratulated the Birmingham team, which is technically known as the Combinatorics, Algorithms and Probability Team at the university.

The thing that struck me was how the problem was intentionally created to be simple and initially thought to be so by the conjecturing trio, only to turn into a mathematical hairball that took 50 years to figure out. Math, much like life, often winds up with intended simplicity giving way to unintended complexity.

Now as to whether or not I'll ever be able to figure out what any of the 8 mathematicians listed were talking about? I think that problem has a simple answer: Highly unlikely.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Why Us? Why Should We Have to Go Where No One Has Gone Before?

Thanks to this Saturday Night Live sketch, we find out what happens if one has a member of today's Gen Z hyper-sensitive types on the crew of one's starship.

We also find out how much of life could be improved with the addition of airlocks.

No, not really. That would be mean.

Friday, April 9, 2021

The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

One of the frequently cited rationales for colleges and other groups restricting speech and mandating both certain forms of speech and behavior has been to maintain or increase vulnerable people's sense of safety.

The problem, as many people have noted, is that the world isn't particularly safe and the effort to make it so approaches more and more the kind of totalitarian ideology associated with dictatorships and closed societies. Freedom and safety are not necessarily incompatible but they have a limited ability to coexist; at some point they're in a zero-sum relationship where one is gained at the expense of the other. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote about some of the causes of the struggle many institutions are having trying to manage commitments to both in a cover story for The Atlantic magazine in 2015. They expanded that article and added more current data in a 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind.

Many people's first instinct might be to dismiss a book with this title as the cranky rantings of a couple of righties upset because colleges don't make students memorize the Ten Commandments and recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. But neither Lukianoff nor Haidt qualify; the former is a liberal free-speech advocate and the latter an atheist professor of psychology who began his work in the field in order to help Democratic candidates win elections.

While they do investigate some real-world phenomena that aggravate the problems they try to describe, such as unhealthy use of social media and its capacity to magnify bullying, Lukianoff and Haidt suggest that the core of the issue is more philosophical. Too many people in society, especially in education, have embraced "three great untruths," the say, which has created the conditions for our problems. The untruths are the idea that what does not kill us -- i.e. hardship -- damages and weakens us, rather than helping his grow as we survive it. The second is that we should always trust our feelings, especially in cases where they tell us something different than our reason might and the third is that all of life is a battle between good people and evil people.

The interaction and interplay of these three ideas leads us to most of the modern ills that cause friction in our society, whether along existing fault lines like political differences or previously unremarkable ones. Microaggressions, identity politics, intersectionality and the like grow from the untruths as does the utopian vision of "safetyism." They say that people or institutions for which safety as the paramount concern can justify almost any action necessary to maintain it, no matter what rights of others it may infringe.

Lukianoff and Haidt lay out their case pretty convincingly and it's not as though every day's news stories don't provide even more examples of the problems they're trying to warn about and perhaps solve. They do offer some solutions but it's hard to see how those can take root before society simply swings so far in one direction it has to swing back or collapse. The sort of lethargic inertia that watched these matters develop doesn't seem likely to get out of the way in order for positive steps to be taken. And in the end, some of the people who might be prompted to think about where we are and how we got her might be the first ones to turn their nose up at a book that suggests their choices and actions are leading us towards even more polarization. No mind, whether coddled or otherwise, is very interested in admitting it's been part of the problem.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Kick 'Em When They're Down

Which I guess you could say this entry does for the hapless Rob Manfred, Commissioner of Major League Baseball. The other day I made fun of his decision to move the 2021 All-Star game from Atlanta to Denver because of uproar claiming Georgia's new voting law is designed to suppress minority turnout. I suggested that it was another in a line of lunk-headed moves by the men given the authority to act "in the best interests of baseball" but who aren't alway smart enough to do so.

I didn't list Bowie Kuhn, but it turns out that Manfred will in his way follow one of Kuhn's clearest blunders. Hank Aaron started the 1974 season with 713 home runs, one shy of Babe Ruth's career record. But his Atlanta Braves started the season on the road, meaning Aaron might very well set the new mark outside his team's home field. Braves staff wanted to sit Aaron for that first series, but Kuhn ordered him to play at least two of the three games. Aaron tied the record on the road but did break it at home -- only to be given his commemorative watch by a representative from the commissioner's office, Monte Irvin. Kuhn himself wasn't at the game, citing a previous engagement.

Earlier this year, Hammerin' Hank departed this life. almost certainly bound for the celestial Hall of Fame his longtime Catholic faith promised him. Which means that this year's All-Star game could have been an occasion to celebrate one of baseball's most elegant, dignified and honorable men, who never responded with hate to the flood of racist mail drawn by his pursuit of Ruth's record. It could have been, but as commissioners of major league baseball seem to have a habit of doing, Rob Manfred thought something else was more important than honoring and respecting Hank Aaron.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

On the Shoulders of Giants

Following the 1919 gambling scandal involving the Chicago White Sox, the organization of major league baseball clubs gave its office of the commissioner extreme power to act in "the best interests of baseball." At times the men occupying that office have used this near-dictatorial authority wisely, and at other times less wisely.

We have the first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, allowing clubs to collude to prevent African-American players from appearing on major league rosters. Ford Frick, without ever using an actual asterisk, did everything else to slight Roger Maris's 61 home runs in a 162-game season compared with Babe Ruth's 60 homers in a 154-game season. Bud Selig allowed a tie in the All-Star game.

And now Rob Manfred has moved the All-Star game and the site of the Major League Baseball draft from Atlanta as a protest against a new Georgia election law. Detractors, including President Joe Biden, have said the law is designed to suppress voting, especially among minorities. The Washington Post's fact-checker gave the President its highest possible rating for saying something inaccurate, four Pinocchios. Even opponents of the law, like political activist and 2018 Georgia gubernatorial loser Stacey Abrams, didn't want companies and organizations to boycott Georgia over it because they believed job losses would cause more harm to the people on whose behalf they said they were advocating.

According to ESPN stories quoted by Hot Air columnist Ed Morrissey, Manfred will set the game in Colorado at Coors Field; home of the Colorado Rockies. Morrissey lists the many folks who took a look at Colorado's election laws and found them either similar to or more restrictive than the law Georgia just passed. To be fair, Colorado's law affects far fewer African-American persons than does Georgia's. As Morrissey notes census data shows Georgia to be 31% African-American while Colorado is 4% African-American in population.

The old saying is that we should never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence. So I would without question reject the charge that Manfred has some vendetta against Atlanta or Georgia. But since he is in a position where he can make some significantly unilateral decisions he's all the more likely to expose whichever attribute he has. And considering that his last big idea was to start extra innings in tie games with a runner already on second we can perhaps sense which one he displayed here.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Sometimes the Internet is Worth Something, Part Much Smaller Number Than You'd Hope For

Ordinarily to view works at France's famed Louvre Museum one would have to travel there, and even then it's like most museums and circulates its collections. Not everything in it is on display all the time.

Plus if you get in a real exploratory mood you'll wind up being made to leave before closing time because there's so much to see.

But in one of those rare shining examples of the Internet doing something good and worthwhile, you can now look at any item the museum owns on your very own screen at home. As this article at Bored Panda outlines, a visit to collections.louvre.fr will get you started on the more than 480,000 paintings, sculptures and whatnot the museum owns. Upside: No closing hours, no chance of running into black-clad sneak thieves making off with rare jewelry or artwork. Downside: Dream of being a black-clad sneak thief making off with rare jewelry or artwork are dashed.