Archive for February 2008

Surfing the Zeitgeist

February 28, 2008

So — a couple of posts back I innocently remember a conversation I had with Susan Blackmore in my kitchen one night at least five years ago (she had come through Boston to give a talk at Mass Art, was staying with my wife and me, and I had just learned that she really, really, hates Lapsang Souchong tea.)

We were arguing about her very strong view of memes. She argues that ideas are imperfect self replicators, analogous to genes, and following Dawkins’ concept of the selfish gene, individuals perceiving themselves to be conscious (us) are in fact merely the vessels for this second class of selfish replicators.

Susan is a systematizer and an avid and extravagant theorizer. I’m a historian by temperament and with what little training I have I look for the details in the grounds of experience, and I don’t see the justification for the strong claim she makes. I’ll blog at greater length on this post -book (2 weeks or less to send the sucker in…), but what brought all this up is that having not spoken to Susan for a couple of years, and not thought much about memes until Bora socked me with one a couple of days ago, who turns up at TED but Dr. Blackmore, in all her memetic — and now temetic — glory (Go to the link if you want to know what a “teme” is.)

I still think her core premise is incorrect, that she mistakes persuasive metaphor for analogic identity — but I deeply enjoy the pressure she puts on me to say why. More on that later. For now, I feel very zeitgeisty. Who needs TED when you’ve got Inverse Square?

3/3/08: Minor update to correct the more obvious usage mistakes.

Image: Anonymous artist, Brazil, “Extracting Foot Worm,” 19th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve Been Tagged! — Darwin follow up.

February 28, 2008

So, last night, I confessed to serious geek-hood for having as the book nearest my typing fingers The Origin of Species. This matters only because The Blog Around the Clock played tag w. Inverse Square, hitting y.t. with the 123 challenge. See the post immediately below this one for the details.

When I finally responded to the tag, I had long since left my day job and desk, and hence the book in question. So now, here, is my response to Bora:

On page 123 of the Penguin Classics edition of Darwin’s masterwork, the sixth, seventh and eighth sentences are:

Here we see how potent has been the effect of the introduction of a single tree, nothing whatever else having been done, with the exception that the land had been enclosed so that cattle could not enter. But how important an enclosure is, I plainly saw in Farnham, in Surrey. Here there are extensive heaths, with a few clumps of old Scotch firs on the distant hill tops: within the last ten years large spaces have been enclosed, and self-sown first are now springing up in multitudes, so close together that all cannot live.

There’s cool stuff there, if you unpack it — and you get a whiff of Victorian sentence structure as a bonus.

But I wasn’t completely satisfied by the passage, I must admit. So I chose to game the system a bit. The Penguin edition numbers its pages from the very beginning of its apparatus. Page one of Darwin’s actual text comes on page fifty three of my paperback. So if you permit me to go as far as 123rd page that Darwin actually wrote, the challenge yields this:

In the Onites apelles the tarsi are so habitually lost,that the insect has been described as not having them. In some other genera they are present, but in rudimentary condition. In the Ateuchus, or sacred beetle of the Egyptians, they are totally deficient.

Now that gives a bit more of the feel of Darwin’s argument. Just a whiff really — but even in those three sentences you can catch the gentle, relentless power of accumulating facts from nature.

This is what Isaac Newton talking about when he claimed that he feigned no hypotheses. Scientific conclusions — Darwin’s discoveries — command assent when it can be demonstrated that an ever greater accumulation of facts can be subsumed within the organization and interpretation provided by the unifyng idea, the theory.

And, as we see here, even sacred beetles must needs submit.

Now — who to tag?

How about Lovable Liberal?

Elizabeth Parisi on Wisdom of Whores?

And while I do recognize his love for the sounds of silence, I don’t know what Tim on Balloon-Juice thinks of blog-tag — but I can ask: what’s on his reading desk just now?

And last — to continue Bora’s theme of support for book writers — how about hitting Eric Roston over at Carbon Nation, whose book, strangely enough to be titled Carbon Nation comes out in June.

Images: Anton Mauve, “The Heath at Laren” 1887; New International Encyclopedia, “Beetles,” 1902. Source for both: Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve Been Tagged! Reading and writing and all that jazz.

February 28, 2008

So — just when I thought it was safe to dive back into my book, along comes Bora with a surprisingly existential challenge:

“I hope that Tom Levenson keeps his manuscript close to his computer.”

Why? You may well ask.

Because A Blog Around The Clock got hit with the 123 challenge, AKA the “goosed meme.” (I’ll blog another time about the argument I ‘ve had with Susan Blackmore — author of The Meme Machine and a delightfully ferocious thinker — about the horrible flabbiness of the concept of a meme.)

But more or less back to the point: Bora gets whacked by Lance Mannion, and he whacked me, among others.

So what is this by which I’ve been whacked — tagged? To lift from Bora, you start the 123 game by grabbing the book closest to you at the moment you open the tag. Then you follow the following three rulse.

• look up page 123 in the nearest book
• look for the fifth sentence
• then post the three sentences that follow that fifth sentence on page 123.

So: in answer to Bora’s hope, the answer is, sort of….

I don’t print out manuscripts of my book much at all. I make back ups obsessively — I have two clones of my computer, each updated on every other day (and I’m about to add a third to replace the hard drive that just crumbled, giving me one each for home, office and briefcase.)

(To crash parentheses: I have been haunted most of my writer’s life by this true story. Maxine Hong Kingston was a writer who lived a couple of canyons over from where I grew up in the Berkeley hills. She was careful about backing up her writing, and in 1991, at work on a new novel, she had in her home floppy disks and a printout. On October 19, 1991, what became known as the Oakland Firestorm broke out — a fire that caused 25 deaths and destroyed 3,300 homes. (The house I grew up in escaped, but not by much.)

Kingston’s home burned to rubble, and every copy of her nearly finished book was destroyed.

Hence, my fixation on multiple copies, e-mailed to editors, stored on disks in different zip codes and so on.)

All of which means that my manuscript was right on the computer with which I opened Bora’s challenge. And as it happens, I was just preparing a new formatted version for a writer friend to read and criticize my my attempt to tell the stort of Isaac Newton as a cop.

So yeah — it was close.

So what I’m going to do here is just post the demanded sentences — look for them below, in just a moment.

But before I do, I admit that’s not what the challenge actually demands…and I’ve been dancing around answering Bora for a couple of days because I’m embarassed to admit the heights of my geekiness. But I give up.

The actual, material, bound-between-two-covers book closest to hand when I read the tag was none other than my crumbling Penguin paperback reading copy of The Origin of Species. I can’t remember what it was I was looking up, but there it was, right next to the laptop.

Two problems: 1) I’m writing this at home, and the book is still at my office, so I’ll actually have to post the three sentences in question tomorrow. 2) They’re pretty dull. Darwin could come up with some genuinely vivid writing (grandeur in this view of life, anyone?) but most of the time he was more dogged than eloquent. The passage on page 123 of the Penguin version is one of those more canine ones

Not that I am so prosodically sinless as to cast stones — as you can see in the six, seventh and eighth sentences from the top of page 123 of my work-in-progress, laboring right now under the provisional title of Newton and the Counterfeiter. The “he” in the passage below is Robert Boyle:

He believed in the redemption and the glory of God, and the joys of the world to come. But if death should have held no terrors for him, Boyle was human enough to admit to fear of the pain of dying.
He was a fortunate man in this, as in so much else.

Hungry for more, I hope? Darwin tomorrow, along with a couple of folks to tag just to spread the joy.

Images: “Boyle’s self flowing flask” (also known as “Boyle’s perpetual motion scheme,” and Johann Kerseboom, “Portrait of Robert Boyle,” c. 1689. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Feel free to metaphorize the blogosphere in the context of the Boyle’s flask as much as you like.

I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout economics, but…: NPR/Henri Poincaré/Mortgage follies edition

February 25, 2008

Innumeracy is a problem I have and will come back to a lot here. But as I listen to more and more popular presentations of technical subjects, I still get astonished by the intersection of two structural problems in the media.

That is: many reporters — not so high a proportion of self-described science writers, though still plenty there — have trouble with even the most elementary uses of quantitative approaches to their stories because they just don’t think in numbers at all. That’s the negative way of framing the problem; journalists have a lack that inhibits their capacity to do good work in an ever-more technically imbued world.

Then there’s the affirmative problem. Reporters establish stories by anecdote, by individual bits of data, single episodes. They’re called stories for a reason: the goal is to perform one of the most powerful acts of communication humans have figured out, to convey information that compels belief because its hearer can place themselves right into the narrative.

That’s why, to edge closer to the real subject of this post, so much of the reporting on the mortgage crisis (fiasco) centers on some family that’s about to lose a house, and spend little time, on the meaning of the big numbers, like the implications of a repricing of US housing on a large scale.  The point is that not only do many journalists not know a set of ideas that could help them figure out such things;  what they do know leads them away from the kind of approach to their work that more mathematical sophistication would provoke.

But there’s a wonderful passage that bears on this from the great French mathematician Henri Poincaré in a collection of essays that greatly influenced the young Albert Einstein:

We can not know all facts, and it is necessary to chose those which are worthy of being known.

Choose? Worthy? Surely Poincaré is not going prematurely po-mo on us here?

Not really. The notion embedded in his deliberately provocative turn of phrase is that facts need form, some apparatus that can incorporate a given datum into a richer story — one with a meaning larger than that of a single incident. That apparatus is quantitative.

(BTW — I use the word “quantitative” rather than mathematical, because for a great deal of human experience, the math needed to make sense of what’s going on is not that complicated.  It’s often a matter of counting, sorting, and extracting relationships within the formal limits of what you learn by the end of high school.  I have posted on a couple of such examples from great scientists — Freeman Dyson, for one, and J.B.S. Haldane for another.  There are lots more — perhaps readers could be persuaded to post examples of what they think are elegant, simple insights a bit of math can give us ?)

All of this  into mind while I listened to NPR this morning.

This is the story that got me going — a short (1 minute, 10 seconds) reporter-voiced account of what seemed to the Morning Edition team to be something strange: Even though the Fed is cutting interest rates, mortgage rates went up sharply last week. That ain’t how its supposed to be, according to the reporter, Adam Davidson, because when the Fed lowers its rates, other rates are supposed to drop.

The reason Davidson gave for what he saw as weird is not all wrong: he said that lenders are newly afraid of inflation, and hence want to charge a higher price for money that is going to be paid back over time.

But look at the unexamined assumption: that the Fed can control rates in general. That’s not true.

What’s missing here? An understanding of the real importance of time.

The Fed mostly exerts its influence on interest rates through the shortest of short-term instruments, the overnight federal funds rate — which is just the price banks pay for extremely brief loans required to keep their minimum reserves up to snuff.

But real people borrow money for houses on long time scales, most famously through 30 year mortgages. The enormous difference between the types and uncertainties of risk between those two scales of time serve at least partially to decouple the two rates — see the data to be retrieved here for a survey view of this.

So it is true that fear of inflation could keep push term rates up, whether or not the Fed was playing around with short term rates. But so could lots of other things.

Perhaps that the value of US real estate is unclear in a falling market, and thus lenders demand a risk premium before they lend against such difficult-to-value assets. Perhaps the overall credit worthiness rating of American real estate borrowers has dropped in the aggregate.  Perhaps lenders fear that the secondary market for mortgages is going to get a bit less liquid.  Lots of factors play into long term interest rates that have nothing to do with the reasons the Fed makes its interest rate decisions.

In other words: and the NPR story was either meaningless or misleading. And it failed because the reporter glossed over or did not fully understand what the mortgage rate summarizes as a single number — all the complex calculations of risk and profit that underpin the decision of whether or not to make a loan.

What I would have loved to hear instead of a “this fact is strange” report would be that story: how do interest rates express quantitatively our ideas about the future.  It’s still a good, fully human story:  Those numbers tells us a tale about what we think we know about what’s coming down the pike — and how much in dollars and cents we fear changes in our perception of what we don’t know.

Image: Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Money Changer,” 1627. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Blogrolling and other matters

February 25, 2008

I’ve been wholly remiss in my blogrolling. I’ve (a) not done enough of it and (b) haven’t raised any banners when I come across blogs I find exciting. Both tasks have been hors de combat as I try and try and try to push my Newton book out the door. (A week left? Two? — can’t be much more, as both my English and my American editors are sending out the St. Bernards.)

So I plan both to get a bit more aggressive in finding and flagging blogs and to work backwards over my existing list to highlight good stuff over time. But so as not to fall further behind, let me just point to those folks I added today.

I’ve had lots of occasions to point to and thank A Blog Around The Clock lately. ‘Clock nurtures science blogging around the web — certainly here. It is a good place to go for anyone interested in Bora’s speciality, chronobiology. But most of all the blog provides a witty and astonishingly broad overview of what’s interesting right now in the science blogosphere.

Terra Sigillata records the thoughts, knowledge and deeds of one Abel Pharmboy, a pharmacologist of very wide interest. He is also already one of the giants of the self-revelatory side of the blogosphere, fresh off his latest triumph, liveblogging his own vasectomy…I suppose I should stop there, as I’m not sure what one can add to that, except to say that Abel is an expert and passionate observer of the world of drugs and health, and he is as well a skilled analyst of the wider world of science and its discontents.

Elizabeth Pisani writes about HIV in both the developed and developing worlds, sex, sexuality, culture, politics, hypocrisy and just about anything else that catches her eye at The Wisdom of Whores. She’s a great blogger, expert in her field, on the front lines (she is based in Indonesia), angry, and a very good writer. She is one of those invaluable reporters who has managed to turn her rage at the misgovernment of our times — and the human suffering it causes — into vivid, powerful sentences. Plus, she’s funny.

There are a lot more to come — the folks I met at the NC Science Blogging Conference in January gave me a couple of dozen blogs, at least, that I am trying to keep up with, a few that I’ve blogrolled quietlya already. More good stuff turns up every day, as I’m sure those reading this know. But while I labor, tortoise like, to catch up on all this, one shout-out to those folks who have been calling attention to Inverse Square. John Dupuis, who writes Confessions of a Science Librarian, was one of the bloggers interviewed the A Blog Around The Clock as part of Bora’s ongoing series highlighting science bloggers. He pointed out that a number of those interviewed have listed Inverse Square as a place to go — and that I owe a lot of beers come next January. This is true. Proper and particular acknowledgment to come, but for now — thanks to all.

Image: Thomas Eakins, “The Writing Master” 1882. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The half a percent solution follow up: Obama’s Afganistan numbers.

February 22, 2008

By now most of the blogoliterate crowd has probably had a round or two of the argument on a statement by Sen. Obama in last night’s debate. In the context of defending his capacity to serve as Commander in Chief, he pointed to the fact that the decision to go to war in Iraq had specific consequences. For example:

…It has diverted attention from Afghanistan, where al Qaeda, that killed 3,000 Americans, are stronger now than at any time since 2001.

I heard from a Army captain, who was the head of a rifle platoon, supposed to have 39 men in a rifle platoon. Ended up being sent to Afghanistan with 24, because 15 of those soldiers had been sent to Iraq. And as a consequence, they didn’t have enough ammunition; they didn’t have enough humvees.

They were actually capturing Taliban weapons because it was easier to get Taliban weapons than it was for them to get properly equipped by our current commander in chief. Now that’s a consequence of bad judgment, and you know, the question is on the critical issues that we face right now who’s going to show the judgment to lead. And I think that on every critical issue that we’ve seen in foreign policy over the last several years — going into Iraq originally, I didn’t just oppose it for the sake of opposing it. I said this is going to distract us from Afghanistan; this is going to fan the flames of anti- American sentiment; this is going to cost us billions of dollars and thousands of lives and overstretch our military, and I was right.

Senator Obama is here providing a blunt example of the consequences of magical thinking trumping elementary arithmetic. I’ve picked up the current controversy from Philip Carter at Intel Dump and John Cole at Balloon Juice, both of whom (a) confirm Obama’s statement, and, (b) especially in Carter’s case, deepen the critique on the point I’ve tried to raise in this post. That is:

Afghanistan is going badly right now — and has been for a while. But people who read too much of Boys Magazine (or perhaps a stray columnist, straining to bend a dimly remembered, perhaps unread Rudyard Kipling to support his cartoon version of war and the world) still believe that the old school try, pluck, and a handy Predator or two are all it takes to prevail in combat or in so-called Grand Strategy.

But they don’t call it “military science” for nothing. It may be — it is — a highly imperfect discipline. Even so, people who have actually spent time on this stuff, and especially those who (unlike me) have tested what they have learned in the face of the enemy, know that 24 soldiers can’t do the job of 39 on any sustained basis. To succeed in war — or really in just about anything of consequence — you have to be able to look at the data head on. You have to be able to count.

We haven’t seen that faculty much in use at the top levels of our government (or much of the media) for a while. It’s past time we did.

Image: Richard Caton Woodville (The Second) “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The half a percent solution: More on why we are losing/have lost the war in Iraq

February 22, 2008

Congressman Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania gave a brutally clear interview on NPR’s On Point program yesterday. The whole thing is worth a listen, but a key comment came fairly early on.

Murphy was promoting his new memoir and talking about his experience as a member of a unit of the 82nd Airborne in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. As the occupation was beginning, a total of 3,500 soldiers from that division had responsibility for a district of Baghdad that was home to about 1.5 million Iraqis.

Bit of background here: Murphy’s dad was (is?) a Philadelphia cop. Murphy had expected to be one himself, but the twists and turns of a somewhat hellraising youth led him to ROTC and a career in the US Army. But he knew from policing, and he’s got Phillie in his bones. The key fact that Murphy gave his listeners is that from a policing point of view, Philadelphia is just about the same size as his area of operation in Baghdad.

How many cops does Philadelphia use to police its 1.5 million residents? 7,000. Oh — and a couple of other things: Police officers in Philadelphia speak the local language, live in neighborhoods in (and, to be sure, around) the city, and many if not most have family roots that go back one or more generations into that community. The 82nd Airborne in Bagdad…not so much.

To Murphy this was just one more example of how badly conceived and led the Iraq operation was from the beginning. That’s certainly true, and the more important meaning of the comparison.

But to me what stood out from that couple of sentences in an almost hour long interview, was the importance of scientific –and more precisely — quantitative reasoning in every day life.

One of the great things about real quantitative reasoning is that it is a very efficient way to think about appropriate problems. Individual military engagements, of course, are all different; there are procedures, training and plans you can make to improve your odds of success, but there is no simple algorithm that is going to get your platoon through every contact with the enemy.

Warfare, however, does have some quantitative approaches that make individual successes more likely and minimize both the liklihood and the consequences of single set backs. That’s the point behind the old cliche often attributed to Omar Bradley: “Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics.” (The quote turns up all over — see this for example.)

That is, actually getting right the calculation for the number of spare parts you need to keep a tank running across Russia makes a big difference to your chances of success — see Richard Overy’s excellent Why the Allies Won for details.

Coming back to Murphy’s anecdote, the other virtue of quantitative reasoning as applied to Iraq, (besides being essential — i.e. we see what happens when our leaders ignore it), is that it is efficient.

It enables you to learn a lot about different courses of action, retrospectively or in prospect. And it does so very quickly. It turns out that in many situations you don’t need much knowledge to be able to infer a great deal more, with great confidence. Simple models based on relatively simple and easy to get data actually can do a lot of heavy lifting.

(As an aside — the PBS kids show Cyberchase takes this as its core theme. My seven year old son is addicted, and I’m glad.)

Try this one on for size: what are minimums for policing large urban populations during an occupation? You could start by looking at a few large cities already at peace — Philadelphia for example. We know, thanks to Captain-turned-Congressman Murphy that Philly runs out about one cop for about every 200 citizens.

You can take that as a working average for cities with a diverse populaton with some identity divisions between them, a working civil government, an established rule of law, and a common language, shared history, and a fair number of common civic symbolic unifiers — a disdain for Santa Claus at Eagles games and so on.

In other words, 1/200 is your starting approximation for policing requirements when you begin to think about taking over the responsibility for order in an unfamiliar territory.

You would, if you were the least bit prudent (or if your own skin and those of soldiers under your command were at stake), probably try to work out some of the factors that might alter that number: things like ethnic/sectarian divisions more intense than you were used to; language barriers; the absence of existing civil institutions; the lack of a history of rule of law and so on.

The bottom line is that there is no rational way to come up with a number smaller than that required to police a city at peace whose police force patrols with the active consent of the overwhelming majority of the policed.

Hence, the decision to station just 3,500 soldiers whose duties included but were not limited to maintaining civil order in an occupied city neighborhood as large as Philadelphia was an obvious error — one of a pattern of blunders that has cost so much for so long.

And the key lesson to draw out of all this belaboring of the obvious? It took only two numerical facts to reach that conclusion: the number of police in Phillie; the number of troops in the neighborhoods of Baghdad. You don’t have to be brilliant to think clearly.

You just have to choose to do so, and to employ the intellectual tools human beings have spent millenia developing to do so.

I want a President that can count beyond “one, two, three, many.”

Image: Etienne Jeurat, “Prostitutes transported by the Police,” 1755. Source: (via Wikimedia Commons) The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. Licensed under a GNU Free Documentation License.


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