Quietly Behind the Scenes

Math can express the nature of the universe

My relationship with math over the years has been like many of my other relationships—promising, awkward and ultimately disappointing. (Understand, BTW, that this is from someone who has remained happily married for 37 years, so there have been exceptions.)

After scoring the highest mark in my large high school class on the math section of the SAT (surpassed thirty years later by my son’s perfect score), I chose not to take any math in my senior year of high school or in college. Multiple friends and classmates said, “What a waste!” but I retained an appreciation for the reverence many great thinkers have had for math and its centrality in understanding the world around us.

In his book, Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe, Steven Strogatz quoted Galileo: “This grand book [i.e., the universe]…cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.”

Over centuries and across cultures, attempts to understand and solve practical problems about things like inheritance law, tax assessment, trade, accounting and interest calculations drove the progression of math from geometry (plane and analytic) to algebra (verbal and symbolic) to calculus (integral and differential). As they were combined and visualized in new and changing ways, the branches of math provided solutions to new problems, enabled new inventions and enriched our understanding of ourselves.

I don’t understand much about calculus, but in many aspects of modern life, Strogatz said, “calculus operates quietly behind the scenes.” I know, as Strogatz said, that calculus has two sides: differential (which divides complex problems into an infinite number of pieces) and integral (which reassembles the pieces to solve the problem). In this way, while geometry deals with things that are static—speed, straight lines, ratios—calculus can address things that change—acceleration, curves, interest rates—by using derivatives to model rates of change and integrals to model the accumulation of change.

Operating “quietly behind the scenes,” calculus enables the functioning of things like GPS, electronic financial transactions, wireless communication, HIV immunotherapy and satellite navigation that we mostly take for granted and depend on every day.

I get pleasure from reading about math not because I understand its highest levels—I don’t—but because it makes me aware of how many ways math can express the nature of the universe and how useful it can be.

Getting Better, XIII: Best Year Ever…Again?

Action is possible, better solutions are available and a better future can be built

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof said that 2019 was The Best Year Ever (as he did about 2018 and 2017, and the National Review said about 2016).

Future Crunch provided 99 reasons to agree about 2019 and defended their thinking: “This has never been about the warm glow, or creating a false sense of hope. We understand as well as anyone that the challenges facing the human family right now are big and scary and there’s no guarantee we will overcome them. As you’ll see in this year’s list of 99 stories though, millions of people have demonstrated in the past 12 months that action is possible, that better solutions are available and that a better future can be built.”

These are my favorites from the Future Crunch list:

  1. The number of people killed in wars around the world reached its lowest level in seven years, and battle fatalities have fallen by 43% since 2014. PRIO
  2. A new study covering 90% of the world’s population showed that the international homicide rate has dropped by 20% since 1990. Eureka Alert
  3. New research showed that the proportion of people in extreme poverty around the world fell from 36% in 1990 to 8.6% in 2018. Absolute numbers were down from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 610 million in 2018. Overseas Development Institute
  4. Save the Children’s 2019 Global Childhood Report showed that in the last 20 years, children’s lives have improved in 173 out of 176 countries. Compared to 2000, today there are:
    • 4.4 million fewer child deaths per year
    • 49 million fewer stunted children
    • 130 million more children in school
    • 94 million fewer child labourers
    • 11 million fewer girls forced into marriage or married early
    • 3 million fewer teen births per year
    • 12,000 fewer child homicides per year
  5. Poverty in the United States reached its lowest rate since 2007, with 1.4 million people leaving poverty in a single year, and poverty in Canada reached the lowest level ever recorded, 9.5%, down from 15.6% in 2006.
  6. Clean energy jobs grew by 3.6% in the United States last year, adding 110,000 net new jobs, and the dramatic reduction of coal in the country’s energy mix has reduced deaths from air pollution and has cut the cost of damages by more than $200 billion. Ars Technica
  7. The world’s largest multilateral financial institution, The European Investment Bank, agreed to stop all financing for fossil fuels, and committed to investing half of its entire annual outlay — not just its energy budget — on climate action and sustainability by 2025. Guardian
  8. Dolphins are breeding in the Potomac River in Washington, DC for the first time since the 1880s, whale populations are exploding off the shores of New York, and 100 seal pups have been born on the shores of the Thames, 60 years after the river was declared “biologically dead.” Telegraph
  9. The US Senate passed its most sweeping conservation legislation in a decade, protecting 1.3 million acres and withdrawing 370,000 acres from land available to mining companies. LA Times
  10. Since 2000, the number of democracies has risen from 90 to 97, including 11 countries that became democratic for the first time ever, and in 2019, 2 billion people in 50 countries voted, the largest number in history. Al Jazeera

If We Are to Remain Safe

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.'” His blanket denial of the necessary and beneficial role that government plays in our lives and our institutions is both offensive and juvenile, particularly when applied to regulations regarding public health.

Federal legislation that requires businesses to consider more than their profits has saved millions of lives—and improved the quality of millions more—by addressing major public health issues in many areas, including:

Deborah Blum’s book, The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, documents the work of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley to establish food safety laws in the United States.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States was “the only civilized country in the world that does not protect the consumer of food products against the adulterations of manufacturers,” charged Senator William Mason of Illinois.

Opposition to the establishment of appropriate food safety legislation in the late nineteenth century came primarily from southern states and their legislators, and it carried a familiar but ludicrous charge. In 1893, when re-elected President Grover Cleveland appointed Julius Sterling Morton of Nebraska Secretary of Agriculture, Morton slashed the department’s staff and budget for food safety research and reporting. Public science writer Alexander Wedderburn produced what he had been told would be the last report before his position was eliminated; it described “poisonous adulterations that have, in many cases, not only impaired the health of the consumer but frequently caused death.” In response, Morton “was appalled”—not by the dangerous and predatory practices addressed but—“by what he saw as an attack on American business”!

As chief chemist at the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry, Wiley began by promoting the establishment of legislation requiring food products to be labeled with an accurate list of their ingredients. He insisted that “consumers had a right to know what manufacturers were mixing into their food.”

Corporate opponents of this initiative included:

  • The dairy industry, which regularly used formaldehyde to salvage sour milk;
  • The baking industry, which feared limits on the use of aluminum in baking powder and other products;
  • The industrial chemical industry, which increasingly invested in preservatives and aniline dyes;
  • The whiskey industry, which used synthetic ethanol as a key ingredient and also contained toxic compounds; and
  • The meatpacking industry, whose appalling practices had been exposed by Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle.

But Wiley’s Bureau of Chemistry grew in its influence as it conducted experimental trials—whose participants were known as the “Poison Squad”—and produced reports on the harmful effects of many common food additives, including:

The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair opened the eyes of many Americans for the first time by featuring an exhibit of samples of adulterated food and a guide that listed “secrets of those who are putting dollars into their pockets by putting poison into our foods.”

When numerous attempts to establish Federal food and drug safety legislation continued to fail, however, Wiley increasingly turned to industry lobbyists, grocers, factory owners, the National Farmers’ Alliance, women’s groups, state commissioners and crusading authors—whose activism continued to focus the nation’s attention by producing a steady stream of articles, speeches, letters and telegraphs.

As Senator Algernon Paddock of Nebraska had predicted, “Eventually consumers would come to appreciate that they could not protect themselves against systematic cheating without regulatory help.”

In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed as the result of the Bureau of Chemistry toxicity studies, the World’s Fair pure food exhibit, and the advocacy of Wiley’s “energetic network of allies.”

Even the new legislation and the continued overwhelming public support of Wiley’s efforts did not halt the opposition of the majority of food manufacturers—the H.J. Heinz Company being a notable exception—or the undermining role of Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson. When Wiley eventually determined that he had done all he could in the continuing toxic environment at the Agriculture Department, he resigned in March, 1912 and went to work for the Good Housekeeping Institute.

Summarizing additional laws that have built on Wiley’s work, Blum wrote, “We have succeeded in creating a protective system that at its best protects all of us impartially. But it’s our responsibility to value and maintain that system. We still need those who will fight on the public’s behalf; we still need our own twenty-first-century version of Harvey Washington Wiley—or rather a cadre of them—to fight for those protections if we are to remain safe.”

Strangers Are Hard

Talking to strangers is harder than we like to admit

“Some books take something complicated and simplify it,” Malcolm Gladwell said. But his book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know, “is the opposite; it takes what we think is simple and complicates it.”

About strangers, Gladwell said:

  1. The modern world requires us to talk to them a lot, and
  2. Talking to them is harder than we like to admit.

“Throughout the majority of human history,” Gladwell said, “encounters—hostile or otherwise—were rarely between strangers. The people you met and fought often believed in the same God as you, built their buildings and organized their cities in the same way you did, fought their wars with the same weapons according to the same rules. Today we are now thrown into contact all the time with people whose assumptions, perspectives, and backgrounds are different from our own.”

For Gladwell, there are three things that make talking to strangers hard:

  • Default to truth—”Our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.”
  • Transparency—We believe that “the way [people] represent themselves on the outside…provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside.”
  • Coupling—We fail to recognize that “behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.”

In order to improve our ability to interact effectively with strangers, Gladwell suggested that we:

  • Resist the temptation to distrust—”To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society. Those occasions when our trusting nature gets violated are tragic. But the alternative—to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception—is worse.”
  • Learn to see beneath the surface of people—”There is no perfect mechanism…to peer, clairvoyantly, inside the minds of those we do not know….There are clues to making sense of a stranger. But attending to them requires care and attention.”
  • Recognize how surroundings influence behavior—”It is really hard for us to accept the idea that a behavior can be…closely coupled to a place….We do not understand the importance of the context in which the stranger is operating.”

Gladwell contended that we have more contact than ever with people we don’t know. This raises the stakes of the digital world’s tendency to reinforce our existing views and to diminish the quality of our face-to-face interaction. Unless we learn to make technology our slave instead of our master, our conversations can only continue to be fraught with peril.

What Pain?

Sure, someone is selling all those opiates but someone is taking them, too

I’m naive about a lot of things. Drug addiction is probably one of them.

For the record, while Psychology Today said that anxiety among addicts is “disproportionate to the rest of the population,” I tend to think that my anxiety is one of the things that makes me resistant to addiction; the thought of surrendering control of my faculties or wondering whether I owe my well-being to an intake of chemicals is terrifying to me.

I have been prescribed opiates on multiple occasions for specific pain episodes, namely kidney stones. I gratefully took the medication as prescribed and when my pain stopped, I stopped taking them.

Sam Quinones’ book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic was called an “astonishing work of reporting and writing” and received the 2015 National Book Critic Circle Award for non-fiction. After seeing it several times on library shelves, I finally started reading it to understand what I was missing about this ubiquitous story, but there remained so many things that still didn’t click for me.

Quinones spent a lot of time describing the way residents of a particular Mexican town sell heroin in American cities—allowing it to “enter the mainstream”—but nothing about that explained or excused the insatiable demand of largely white middle-class addicts for their product.

For Quinones, the unprecedented marketing of pain medication—by “legitimate” and illegitimate sources—and the changing attitudes of the medical community toward it were key to the rise of the crisis. He portrays sufferers of chronic pain—as many as 50 million Americans for whom some of the new drugs were key to living a productive life—and the doctors who sought to address their condition as primary sources of the problem.

By choosing not to emphasize the large percentage of young people who became addicts after taking pain medications recreationally, Quinones played to those who portray the epidemic as a perplexing tragedy brought about by Mexicans and their “pizza-delivery-style” marketing system. And placing blame on sufferers of chronic pain, their doctors, and drug manufacturers may well have been more acceptable than placing it on “nice white kids from excellent families.”

Opiates were developed to numb pain, as Quinones documented in detail. But as he and a police officer toured the “fine neighborhoods south of Charlotte [South Carolina] where [the officer] arrested kids for pills and heroin,” the officer asked rhetorically, “What pain?”

Certainly, a number of overwhelmed doctors, greedy drug manufacturers, and criminal elements have played a part in the opiate epidemic. But there would be no demand for their services and no payoff to be achieved if abusers weren’t willing to provide them.

They’re Just Birds

If an Intelligent Designer designed nature, why did it decide to make breeding so tedious for those penguins?

In 1967, Parnelli Jones and his revolutionary turbine-powered car dominated the Indianapolis 500 and he was leading with three laps to go when he coasted to a stop. A $6 transmission bearing had failed and the complicated machine was halted by the failure of a very small, seemingly insignificant part.

The human body can also be halted by small, seemingly insignificant things. These elements are believed to be essential for human life (optimal level as a percentage of body weight):

  • Oxygen (65%)
  • Carbon (18%)
  • Hydrogen (10%)
  • Nitrogen (3%)
  • Calcium (1.5%)
  • Phosphorus (1%)
  • Potassium (.25%)
  • Sulfur (.25%)
  • Chlorine (.15%)
  • Sodium (.15%)
  • Magnesium (.05%)
  • Iron (.006%)
  • Zinc (.0032%)
  • Copper (.0001%)
  • Selenium (.000019%)
  • Manganese (.000017%)
  • Iodine (.000016%)
  • Molybdenum (.000013%)
  • Cobalt (.0000021%)

If the required level of any of these elements strays too far—in either direction—from the optimal level, life is imperiled. Is this precariousness evidence of an ingenious design or is it just random and chaotic? Some viewers of the 2005 documentary film, March of the Penguins, held its story of the tedious journey of the parent birds as evidence of an ingenious design while others asked, “What kind of design is that?

We tend to see new things in a way that confirms our existing point of view. But the progressive rock band, Yes, conceded, “Take what I say in a different way and it’s easy to say that this is all confusion.” If truth and wisdom are the goal, it makes sense not to burden our attempts at understanding with our own biases and let things speak for themselves.

Why Do I Even Have That Lever?

Wrong lever!

In the Disney movie, The Emperor’s New Groove, the emperor’s advisor Yzma tells her lackey Kronk to pull a lever to get to her secret lab: “Pull the lever!” He pulls a different lever that instead casts her into an alligator-infested pit: “Wrong lever!” On returning from the pit, she asks no one in particular, “Why do we even have that lever?

An endless stream of seeming conveniences promises to enhance our lives as easily as pulling a lever. But pulling them—perhaps for fear of missing out—instead often burdens us with distractions, obstacles and bad influences.

Some of these temptations are “wrong levers” that sap our attention and energy and trip us up unnecessarily. Better to get rid of them; thus, I don’t even have these levers (seriously):

  • Cable television
  • A smart phone
  • A Facebook account
  • A smart speaker
  • A self storage locker

Technology makes a great slave but a terrible master. In order to keep it the former, it pays to ask, from time to time, “Why do I even have that lever?”

Fully Accounting For The Unexpected

Airmanship is a deep appreciation for the interplay between energy, inertia and wings

In his article for The New York Times Magazine, “What Really Brought Down the Boeing 737 Max?“, William Langewiesche applied blame for the plane’s crashes in 2018 and 2019 to a number of things, but he emphasized one in particular: a lack of airmanship. “In the drama of the 737 Max,” he said, “it was the decisions made by four of those pilots, more than the failure of a single obscure component, that led to 346 deaths.”

Airmanship, according to Langewiesche, is “a visceral sense of navigation, an operational understanding of weather and weather information, the ability to form mental maps of traffic flows, fluency in the nuance of radio communications and, especially, a deep appreciation for the interplay between energy, inertia and wings.” It describes a level of skill that he insists is simply not instilled by the training completed by many of today’s pilots, including those on the Boeing planes that crashed.

The increased use of automation in flight, he contended, has transformed “the whole business of flying,” making “accidents so rare…a cheap air-travel boom was able to take root around the world.” Crucially, however, according to Langewiesche, these automated planes have “never managed to fully account for the unexpected: for the moment when technology fails and humans…are required to intervene,” and this requirement has exposed the alleged lack of “airmanship” on the part of an increasing number of pilots.

Langewiesche, a professional pilot, has written before about the overreliance of pilots and airline manufacturers on automation. Others—notably Airbus in contrast to Boeing—seem to believe automation hasn’t gone far enough.

But, on a higher level, this question reminded me of mathematician Hannah Fry‘s contention about algorithms in her book, Hello, World. Our tendency to view things in black and white, she said, can cause us to see algorithms “as either omnipotent masters or a useless pile of junk.”

“We have a tendency to over-trust anything we don’t understand,” according to Fry, [but] “as soon as we know an algorithm can make mistakes, we also have a rather annoying habit of over-reacting and dismissing it completely, reverting instead to our own flawed judgment.”

There is no shortage of objects to blame for airplane crashes, often out of “over-reacting” to one or another:

  • Corporations for cutting costs in the training of pilots
  • Pilots for a lack of decision-making skill
  • Engineers for failing to provide lucid documentation
  • Too much automation
  • Not enough automation

Evidence shows that “computers fly airplanes much more precisely than humans.” But it also seems that automation should augment rather than replace true expertise on the part of pilots—and other technical professionals—and be accompanied by clear documentation. It costs money, however, to develop better automation and true expertise. When airlines reap record profits and consumers consistently make choices primarily on price, what corporate or governmental policy can provide the incentives needed to pay for both? Fixating primarily on cost does not provide a path to increased safety; unfortunately, it seems that’s the path commercial airlines and their passengers have chosen to follow.

A Tool of Amazing Accomplishment

Apollo generated enthusiasm for high technology

This year’s 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing has prompted a mountain of content—museum exhibits, books, art, television—that is deserved in every way. In particular, Charles Fishman’s book, One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon, affirmed why Apollo 11 is one of the rare technological milestones that retains its ability to astound and amaze decades later.

He detailed one of the most remarkable moments of the mission, the well-known but little-understood episode of the computer alarms during the descent of the lunar module to the surface of the Moon. For Fishman, this was where MIT’s Apollo computer and its software proved their capabilities most impressively:

“Because of a quirky and uncorrected electrical problem deep inside the wiring of the lunar module, the rendezvous radar was pouring signals into the computer as the Eagle headed for landing, overloading it. The computer knew those signals were irrelevant to landing on the Moon. It dumped them, wiped itself clean, started again, and sounded the alarm. The alarms, in fact, were informational: the computer wasn’t in trouble; it was just telling the astronauts and Mission Control what it was doing (and raising a flag that some other part of the lunar module was doing something odd). That’s why [Jack] Garman kept saying with such confidence, GO! Same alarm! GO!”

“One thing is certain: any other computer, at that moment in that era, would have choked. Indeed even a computer designed for landing on the Moon, but designed with less forethought and resilience, would have choked. The 12-minute flight from 50,000 feet in lunar orbit to landing was the most demanding moment for the Apollo computer in the whole journey from Launchpad 39-A to the Pacific Ocean. And in that very moment, on that very first Moon landing, a small flaw in the wiring harness of the lunar module overloaded the computer that was controlling that landing, and the computer was able to perfectly pick the work that absolutely had to be done, and also restart itself so it didn’t freeze. Both of the Apollo computer’s most innovative qualities—the decision-making ability and the ability to restart itself in the middle of its work and resume working without a stumble—turned out to be absolutely essential and to work perfectly.”

The Apollo Guidance Computer, said Fishman, “didn’t make beautiful displays on a screen—that technology and processing power didn’t exist yet—but it was more sophisticated in its routine operations than the laptops we use every day 50 years later. It knew how to do things on its own, and it was connected to the equipment to do those things—to rocket engines and radar antennas and gyroscopes. The computer knew how to ask for information, wait for it, and then use that information to handle sophisticated tasks like navigating from orbit to the surface of the Moon. And of course, the Apollo computer could function in what we think of as the more traditional user-machine mode, accepting requests and providing real-time data.”

“It’s worth underscoring,” Fishman added, “that the Instrumentation Lab created all this from scratch well before the folks in Silicon Valley came up with the mouse and the graphical user interface. The VERB-NOUN combo was a simple, clear, easy-to-understand way of running the computer. You thought, ‘I want the computer to do this,’ and then you used your list of two-digit codes to tell it to do exactly that. Putting aside the simplicity of the display, it was a much more intuitive and easy-to-use system than the DOS command line, with the C> prompt, that Microsoft would first offer computer users 12 years after Apollo 11.”

The guidance computer, according to Fishman, is a part of Apollo’s primary legacy—the impact it had on technology’s place in our society. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he said, “Technology, to the degree it was even an idea and a word in people’s consciousness, was military technology: the Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, and the missiles created to deliver them. Technology was Dr. Strangelove.” Moreover, said Professor Eric Schatzberg, at the dawn of the 1960s “there was no everyday idea of ‘technology‘ the way we think of it today” but Apollo “generated enthusiasm for high technology. It resonated with people.” “The Space Age,” said Fishman, “came to seem like a version of the world mostly free of the dark shadow that ‘technology’ had carried since Hiroshima.”

Ultimately, for Fishman, this is the lasting, positive impact of the race to the Moon, that Apollo “so visibly and so dramatically transformed technology from being a tool of war to a tool of amazing accomplishment, and also a tool of everyday life.”

And, as Neil deGrasse Tyson said when Neil Armstrong died in 2012, “No other act of human exploration ever laid a plaque saying ‘We Came In Peace For All Mankind‘.”

Pay Attention

Sometimes all it takes is paying attention

  • They’re not offering me a deal because they like me.
  • The hardest skill for an investor is knowing when to do nothing and doing it.
  • Spending less has the same benefit as earning more, only quicker.
  • Consider the source.
  • I’m different, like everybody else.
  • I am what I eat|read|listen to|watch|believe.
  • I am always responsible for opting in and I always have the option to opt out.
  • Luck and timing are less important than my response to them.
  • I must know—and own—my biases.
  • I’ve got a weird family; everybody does.