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July 23, 2019

Barbara Oakley argues that learning math is not so different from learning other kinds of things:

Chunking was originally conceptualized in the groundbreaking work of Herbert Simon in his analysis of chess—chunks were envisioned as the varying neural counterparts of different chess patterns. Gradually, neuroscientists came to realize that experts such as chess grand masters are experts because they have stored thousands of chunks of knowledge about their area of expertise in their long-term memory. Chess masters, for example, can recall tens of thousands of different chess patterns. Whatever the discipline, experts can call up to consciousness one or several of these well-knit-together, chunked neural subroutines to analyze and react to a new learning situation. This level of true understanding, and ability to use that understanding in new situations, comes only with the kind of rigor and familiarity that repetition, memorization, and practice can foster. As studies of chess masters, emergency room physicians, and fighter pilots have shown, in times of critical stress, conscious analysis of a situation is replaced by quick, subconscious processing as these experts rapidly draw on their deeply ingrained repertoire of neural subroutines — chunks.

I’m a little skeptical. My intuition is that there is more to thinking mathematically than learning sets of mathematical techniques to apply. But I was a math nerd from a young age.


Trees and the environment

July 22, 2019

The environmentalist’s goal is to preserve ecosystems and habitats. Old forests are important because of the species and variety already in them. Especially tropical rain forests, where each valley can have an abundance of species unique to it.

So it is quite disheartening to read how Bolsonaro is gutting environmental regulations and agencies in Brazil, putting them to the service of industry and ranchers. Following in the footsteps of other right-wing populists, he labels as lies his own government’s data that he does not like, he is undermining the universities, and he is intimidating critics.

Stefan Rahmstorf puts into perspective the recent report on how much space remains for reforestation, and the extent to which that is a plausible way to slow global warming. There is no silver bullet for global warming, except the one thing the fossil fuel industry wants to make seem impossible: reduced aggregate use of fossil fuels.

Racism and busing

July 17, 2019

It is easy to imagine that many of those vested in the slave system of the early American south held no personal animus against blacks. Slave traders dealt with free blacks in Africa. Plantation owners frequently took black concubines. Slavery has been practiced through much of history, in many places and climes. It does not require any particular notions about race to participate in that practice. The desire to acquire wealth and social status will drive many to careers exploiting any resource available. I suspect many early slave owners held no particular view of race. They each would have been able to say, more honestly than Trump, that he doesn’t “have a Racist bone in my body.”

Now, a historian or sociologist would point out that the system they made to build their wealth built in significant inequities. More, it shaped the notions of race that now are so much a part of American culture. Both the pseudo-scientific notions around that and the religious notion that blacks bore the curse of Ham were sharpened and more propagated as a political defense of slavery as political controversy around it grew. Those arguments weren’t needed to lay its foundations. The promise of wealth was enough for that. They were needed only in the political struggle that came later. That they would remain popular for a century after the Civil War shows the enduring power of the system that was created, and its long resistance to reform.

Nicole Hannah-Jones writes an excellent article on one of the battles enjoined: school integration. She points out how easily those defending their place and position shift from race-based arguments to more abstract ones:

But white Northerners, who were watching as mandatory desegregation orders were breaking the back of Jim Crow education, quickly adapted a savvier resistance than their counterparts in the South. As the NAACP Legal Defense Fund repeatedly persuaded courts to order desegregation upon showing that Northern officials had maintained official — if not public — policies to segregate black children, the resistance increasingly took on “busing.” This allowed white communities and politicians to deny the role of racism and therefore give respectable cover to their resistance. It was the educational version of arguing that the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than slavery — one could uphold racist practices and systems while arguing that race had nothing to do with it.

When I was in junior high, it was one of the white schools to which black students were first bused. That did indeed cause some conflicts among the students. Strangely, not nearly as many as it did among the parents. One of the sillier arguments I heard then, and still encounter today, is that busing is social engineering, and therefore wrong. As if all that came before it was not also social engineering.

One response to busing was white flight. Hannah-Jones partly credits a court decision:

And then in 1974 the Supreme Court, stacked with four Nixon appointees, dealt a lethal blow to Northern desegregation. In Milliken v. Bradley, it struck down a lower court’s order for a metropolitan desegregation plan that attempted to deal with white flight by forcing the all-white suburban school districts ringing Detroit to integrate with the nearly all-black city system. By ruling against a desegregation plan that jumped school district borders, the court sent a clear message to white Northerners that the easiest way to avoid integration was to move to a white town with white schools.

As messy as it was, busing worked. Schools in most parts of the nation became less segregated. (See graph right.) It brought large change to the culture of the south, turning it from almost an apartheid society into something better. Desegregation is one of the few things we know that helped black student achievement:

We now know that school desegregation significantly reduced the test-score gap between black and white children — cutting it in half for some black age groups without harming white children. No other reform has reduced the gap on this scale. Rather, the opposite is true: The test-score gap between black and white students reached its narrowest point ever at the peak of desegregation and has widened as schools have resegregated.

Yet what was done remains as controversial today as it was then. And then, as now, those opposing change easily shift from race-explicit to other kinds of arguments. Lee Atwater famously explained that, when discussing the GOP’s successful southern strategy.

I think Chris Cillizza is mistaken in attributing those racist tweets to misunderstanding. Trump campaigned on fear and political resentment. Fear of modernity. Fear of liberals. Fear of globalism. Fear of immigrants. Fear of Muslims. It is hardly surprising that his base is characterized by racial resentment.

Getting rid of Trump won’t fix the US

July 16, 2019

The important thing about Trump’s racist tweets is not that he is doubling down on them, rather than backing away, but that his base loves him for it. I long have argued that Trump is less important than the movement he rode to power. What Trump reveals is that the Republican party was not conservative in the way its intellectuals long painted that. He drove those conservatives away. George Will recognizes this is not an aberration easily fixed:

I believe that what this president has done to our culture, to our civic discourse … you cannot unring these bells and you cannot unsay what he has said, and you cannot change that he has now in a very short time made it seem normal for schoolboy taunts and obvious lies to be spun out in a constant stream. I think this will do more lasting damage than Richard Nixon’s surreptitious burglaries did.

Fixing what is broken in the US means defeating the movement that wants that in their leader. The glimmer of light there is that its members mostly are old, that Trump has exposed its ugly heart, and that Gen Z is as liberal as and less religious than the millennials.

Drinking and mortality

July 15, 2019

Most biologically active substances have a straightforward dose-response relationship: the more applied, the greater the effects, both good and ill. That curve typically is S-shaped, rather than linear. A drug whose ramp for the desired effect is far ahead of the ramp for its ill effects has what is known as a friendly therapeutic range. That dose-response is typical also for toxins, substances that have no known beneficial effect on health.

Such as alcohol. It is a known carcinogen that is responsible for 2% to 5% of all cancers. It is hard on the liver. It has side effects from rosacea to peripheral neuropathy. There is no reason to expect any amount would be healthy. Chronic alcoholism is as ugly and deadly an end as any disease.

Yet, longitudinal studies — including one that tracked two million British — long have shown what is known as the J-shaped curve, where moderate drinkers live longer than abstainers. That’s quite a counter-intuitive notion that bothers many health workers. And a large meta-analysis last year reached the conclusion that it just wasn’t so. (Cite.)

Well, now comes another actual study, from Columbia University, that tracked several thousand older adults for sixteen years. (Cite.) Lo, and behold, it too found that moderate drinkers outlive those with other kinds of relationship to alcohol, including occasional drinkers. See the graph below — click to enlarge.

The problem is that no one has explained why that might be the case. There is the possibility that alcohol in moderation has some beneficial vascular effect. While there are some hints of that, I know of no study designed to test it. Another possibility is that healthy people are more likely to enjoy drinking moderately, i.e., the relationship lies entirely in who drinks moderately, not in any effect of alcohol. The problem there is that shouldn’t create the mortality curves above, where the effect persists over years. For now, it remains a puzzle, yet to be explained. And visible across dozens of studies, quite to the annoyance of those who would like somehow to explain it away.

What you shouldn’t drink, seemingly, are sugary beverages, neither pop nor fruit juice. A study from France associates them with increased cancer risk (cite), and another study from Cornell and Emory tracking older adults associate them with increased mortality (cite). I never touch the stuff.

In local waters

July 12, 2019

TigerSharkManatees are rare visitors in Corpus Christi bay. I hope the current visitor is not too distressed by distance from his more common range. Manatees should not be confused with mermaids, whose visitations here also are rare.

A ten foot tiger shark was caught Wednesday on Padre Island National sea shore here. See photo right. Fortunately, my family visiting from Kerrville, won’t see this post until after their return home today.

American stupidity

July 11, 2019

It is not everyday that I stumble across an article that epitomizes what is wrong with the right-wing media in this nation. But, it’s not everyday that a writer tries to argue that Jeffrey Epstein’s latest arrest makes Pizzagate more believable:

We should keep all of this in mind the next time we feel inclined to sneer at so-called “low-information voters,” especially the kookier sort. You know the people I mean. Wackos. Gun nuts. 8channers. Conspiracy theorists in Middle America who watch InfoWars (one of the few journalistic outlets to discuss the issue of pedophilia regularly) and post about QAnon and “spirit cooking” and the lizard people. The news that a globalized cabal of billionaires and politicians and journalists and Hollywood bigwigs might be flying around the world raping teenaged girls will not surprise them in the least because it is what they have long suspected. For the rest of us it is like finding out that the Jersey Devil is real or turning on cable news and finding Anderson Cooper and his panel engaged in a matter-of-fact discussion of Elvis’s residence among the Zixls on the 19th moon of Dazotera. Among other things, the Epstein case forces us to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions about the real meaning of “fake” news. There is, or should be, more to being informed than fact-checking formalism.

Let’s begin with this. There are pedophiles. Being rich and powerful doesn’t make people more moral. No one is surprised when someone rich or powerful is caught behaving criminally or scandalously. Especially when they were previously convicted of a similar crime. No one is surprised that like-minded criminals sometimes act together. None of that is the reason Pizzagate is laughable.

Pizzagate is laughable because there never was a bit of evidence for it. It was entirely conjured, by wackos, 8channers, Alex Jones fans, and similar conspiracy theorists.

And that is obvious from just a little bit of fact checking. That author gives himself away when he labels fact checking a “formalism.” Because conspiracy theorists do what they call fact checking. And sometimes copy the style of actual fact checkers in doing that. While missing completely the substance. It’s like those who write articles in the style of an academic paper, from abstract to footnotes, containing nothing but bunk and nonsense. In both cases, it is an imitation of form, an imitation that ignores the substance and reason that gave rise to the form.

Those who cannot tell the evidentiary difference between Pizzagate and the Epstein case are incapable of understanding the social world in which they live. In the case of someone young, not long moved out from under their parents’ roof, that may reflect youthful naivete. In the case of someone older, they either lack the capacity to understand, or have pursued an intentional ignorance.