Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How Not to Be Wrong

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
Jordan Ellenberg (2014, The Penguin Press)

    Jordan Ellenberg wants to teach us to love math because it’s a super-power. “Math is like an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength.” He’s not just talking about algebra, or Euclidian proofs, though he’d cheerfully confess to the beauty and utility of those things.   In How Not to Be Wrong, he’s talking about how we look at the world, and how we understand what we see.

    The world, as it turns out, is full of bad math, because people employ the tools and gadgets of math without the common sense. Ellenberg deconstructs a study that extrapolates from four decades of increasing obesity to conclude that all Americans will be obese by 2048, if current trends continue. “But current trends will not continue. They  can’t! If they did, by 2060, a whopping 109% of Americans would be overweight.” As it turns out, when looked at from the appropriate distance, many straight lines are actually curves.

    Probability is another area where mathematics helps make sense of our intuition. The probability that a large number of coin flips will come up heads half the time is too taxing to grasp, though we have to guard against believing that the coin remembers its previous results. But, says Ellenberg, what about expressing tomorrow’s chance of rain in percentage terms? “Tomorrow only happens once; it’s not an experiment we can repeat like a coin flip again and again.”

    Still, we use the tools we have, and Ellenberg wants us to use them wisely, or at least sensibly. The modern practice of statistics relies on the null hypothesis significance test, familiar from discussions of drug trials, economic theory, and psychological experiments. If you set up a null hypothesis, that such and such a thing has no effect, running tests, and finding the null hypothesis comes up less than five per cent of the time, you can say that the thing has a statistically significant chance of being true. Ellenberg points out, in the first place, that “the significance test that scientists use doesn’t measure importance,” though it sounds like it would.

    “If you make the test more sensitive–by increasing the size of the studied population, for example–you enable yourselves to see ever-smaller effects.” Just because something that almost never happens is three times likelier to happen doesn’t make it significant in the ordinary English sense, over-heated headlines notwithstanding. The significance test is a cousin to the reduction ad absurdum, in which mathematicians set up an assumption to disprove. But, Ellenberg warns, “impossible and improbable are not the same–not even close. Impossible things never happen. But improbable things happen a lot.” 

    How Not to Be Wrong is a delightfully approachable book, though there’s plenty of real math in it. The reader comes away knowing more about probability theory, encryption algorithms, alternative geometries, and why elections with more than two candidates are an unsolvable problem.

    And, Ellenberg hopes, we will find a taste for using reason in a structured way: “I find it’s a good habit to put pressure on all your beliefs, social, political, scientific, and philosophical. Believe what you believe by day; but at night, argue against the propositions you hold most dear. Don’t cheat! To the greatest extent possible you have to think as though you believe what you don’t believe. And if you can’t talk yourself out of your existing beliefs, you’ll know a lot more about why you believe what you believe. You’ll have come a little closer to a proof.”   




    Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful thing?   

              


E-mail edition, October 1, 2014














Monday, September 1, 2014

Boomerang:

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World
Michael Lewis (2011, W. W. Norton & Co.)

    Thanks to books like Michael Lewis’s The Big Short (2011), I was more or less acquainted with the financial crisis of the past ten years. In that book, Lewis followed the trail of collateralized debt obligations and sub-prime mortgage debt that led, in 2008, to the spectacular smash-up of a few Wall Street fortunes and many more American dreams. But I had not paid much attention to the global side of the story, the impact the credit crisis had on banks and governments overseas.

    Happily, Michael Lewis was on the job. When international credit seized up, Iceland, Greece, and Ireland all came to the brink of collapse; German banks found that they were holding billions in toxic assets. In Boomerang, Lewis explores the old-fashioned idea of national temperament, in search of the reason for the different way the crisis affected different places. Icelandic fishermen, for instance, have bravado to spare, so when many of them turned to bond trading, they ran outsized risks. It worked, for a while, but primarily as a nation-sized Ponzi scheme: in one case, “Virtually the entire bank’s stated profits were caused by its marking up assets it had bought at inflated prices.” It looked so good while it lasted that German banks put in $21 billion, which has turned out to be a costly mistake.

    The problem in Greece was an unholy combination of several forms of corruption. For one thing, the tax collection system was completely broken; the under-the-table economy dwarfs the official one. For another, the public sector was awash in bribery, over and above its generous wages and pension. On top of that, the books are a shambles. The reported 2009 budget deficit was first estimated at 3.7 percent, but the incoming minister of finance searched out better numbers that added up to nearly 14 percent. And, because of the election in 2009, the tax collectors had been called off. Between government borrowing and pension obligations, Greece’s debt amounted to more than a quarter million dollars per working citizen; since they’re members of the European Monetary Union, the problem is more complicated. But, says Lewis, “...this question of whether Greece will repay its debts is really a question of whether Greece will change its culture, and that will happen only if Greeks want to change.”

    Ireland used the easy global credit of the early 2000’s to perpetrate a truly spectacular housing bubble. “The Irish construction industry had swollen to become nearly a quarter of Irish GDP–compared to less than 10 percent or so in a normal economy–and Ireland was building half as many new houses a year as the United Kingdom, which had fifteen times as many people to house.” The credit was driving the supply, and the demand wandered along behind. “Their real estate boom had the flavor of a family lie: it was sustainable so long as it went unquestioned and it went unquestioned so long as it appeared sustainable.” But of course, the day that the bubble was questioned in the markets was the day it became unsustainable; real estate lost half its value almost overnight, and the government stepped up to guarantee the debts of the six largest Irish banks. “In retrospect, now that the Irish bank losses are known to be world historically huge, the decision to cover them appears not merely odd but suicidal.” Instead of letting bondholders take losses for stupid loans, the Irish government repaid them with money borrowed from the European Central Bank. Irish homeowners with overpriced mortgages will be repaying both their own and the government’s debts for a very long time.

    On Lewis’s visit to Germany he met some of the bankers who bought so many of the bad bonds Wall Street had been churning out. The German bank IKB borrowed money to buy CDOs, and wound up losing some $15 billion. Lewis says, “Perhaps because they were so enamored of the official rules of finance, the Germans proved especially vulnerable to a false idea the rules encouraged: that there is such a thing as a riskless asset.”

    This book has a stinger in its tail. As we’ve seen, it’s logical, in the moment, for governments to borrow for necessities, and hope to be out of office when the bills come due. Lewis’s last chapter applies this lens to the state of California, and its municipalities. By the end of the Schwarzenegger administration, the state had unfunded liabilities for salaries and pensions of at least $100 billion; cities like San Jose spend three quarters of their budgets on fire fighters and policemen, and it’s nearly impossible to raise taxes to keep other services running. There and everywhere, this is unsustainable, but a little too painful to face in the present. And things could always work out–after all, tomorrow is another day.



Any Good Books Email,
September 2014

Friday, August 1, 2014

Father's Day


Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son
Buzz Bissinger (2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

    In the typical father-of-a-disabled-kid memoir, you can expect at least a hint of heroism on the part of the father. The sheer difficulty of having a child marked by his differences seems to evoke an extra measure of patience. On the other hand, there’s Buzz Bissinger, whose book is so unsparing of his own misunderstanding, disappointment, and shame that you can hardly believe he let it out the door.

    Bissinger knows about being unsparing: his 1990 tour de force Friday Night Lights exposed the high school football culture of Odessa, Texas, so unflatteringly that he still has enemies there. Selling a movie and a television series on top of two million copies of a book is no small accomplishment, but Bissinger runs his life on an engine of discontent. Realizing that he peaked at thirty-five gives all that success a whiff of failure.  “I knew when it was published I would never top it no matter how hard I tried, and after almost twenty years, I still have not topped it.”

    The twin sons born to Bissinger’s first wife in 1983 emerged thirteen weeks early, and weighed less than two pounds each. Gerry, the older by three minutes, was a success story of neonatal intensive care. Zachary, however, deprived of oxygen by those three minutes, suffered significant damage to the executive functions of his brain. As a young man, he is verbal and gregarious, but he doesn’t think abstractly, or have any sense of literature, history, or current events. His best-case employment prospect is bagging groceries.

    The deficits of that brain damage come with some paradoxical assets: Zach is a  savant, as it turns out, with a taste for maps and dates, and a perfect memory for some kinds of information. He can’t add one hundred and one hundred, but he can tell you what day of the week your thirtieth birthday was. He’ll never drive a car, but he can find your house on a map. He cannot tell a lie, because it doesn’t occur to him to hide what he wants.

    Father’s Day is the story of a trip Buzz and Zach took across the United States, revisiting places they had lived together, seeing old friends. They go back to Milwaukee, so Zach can see his old school.  From there, it’s a thousand miles south to Odessa, where they spent the year Zach and Gerry were five. It’s a place Buzz is still uncomfortable, because of his vexed relationship with some of the football players he wrote about. Boobie Miles, in particular, suffered a knee injury in his senior season that permanently derailed his life; his loss was Bissinger’s narrative gain, leaving Buzz with a haze of guilt.

    One of Bissinger’s aims for this journey is to spend time trying to get inside Zach’s head, to try and understand what he understands about himself. He’s worried, naturally enough, about what will happen to Zach in the future, when the time comes that he can’t live with one of his parents. Gerry has overcome his precarious infancy, and bulled his way through school and college, with plans to become a school principal; would caring for his brother be a burden he should accept?

    Two weeks on the road also give Bissinger plenty of time to come to terms with his own discomfort with the way Zach is. Twenty-five years in, he grieves the imaginary son who would have driven a car, worn Brooks Brothers jackets, and gone to college. Gerry’s success is no relief: “My pride in Gerry tamps down because of the guilt I feel for Zach. The goddamn guilt. The scrap-metal weight shackled to my ankle. It is always there.

    But he also gets a chance to see that Zach gets along pretty well, after his own odd fashion. He has friends: in Odessa, of all places, “every single person we encounter treats Zach the way he should always be treated, which is just like everyone else.”Zach shows tremendous patience with his father, going genially along on this road trip, while taking steps to get his own rewards out of it; and if he’d rather lounge by the hotel pool charging soft drinks to the room than go out to dinner and a Vegas show, maybe he has the right idea. He’ll always be different, but he’ll be all right.
   

Any Good Books   
August 2014
Email version

Monday, June 30, 2014

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse


When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech for Better and/or Worse
Ben Yagoda (2007, Broadway Books)

    A book about the parts of speech sounds like it would be about as much fun as a fifth grade English class, but it’s not so: your fifth grade teacher was almost certainly not  half as smart and as interesting as Ben Yagoda is. As it happens, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It is partly concerned with exposing some of the lies your fifth grade teacher taught you about the rules of English. (If you want to go on observing such shibboleths, it’s perfectly fine with him; you just shouldn’t promulgate them as the One True Way.)

    Yagoda is interested in what words are, and what they’re good for.  He makes fruitful use of the British National Corpus, a 100-million-word collection of written and spoken language. It’s now possible to know, for instance, that adjectives represent about six percent of the words use in the corpus; so why did Mark Twain think they should be killed? “The root of the problem is lazy writers’ inordinate fondness for this part of speech. They start hurling the epithets when they haven’t provided enough data–specific nouns and active verbs–to get their idea across.” But to use adjectives creatively and resourcefully is “an indication of originality, wit, observation–the cast and quality of the writer’s mind.”

    I’d say the same of Yagoda’s use of quotations and examples, which he draws from all over the literary and cultural map. Shakespeare, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Dickens share the pages with Fats Waller, the Lone Ranger, and the Simpsons. Yagoda is familiar with what Stephen King and Steven Pinker have had to say about language and writing; his highest praise goes to H. L. Mencken and Henry W. Fowler, two great early 20th century writers on English and its delights.

    Yagoda does not give much aid and comfort to prescriptivists, people who wish that English would stop changing all the time. He points out, for one thing, that they are apt to promulgate rules, like the prohibition on using ‘they’ and ‘them’ as singular pronouns, that have been contradicted by the practice of writers from Jane Austen to Gertrude Stein. In any case, ‘Ultimately, the issue of correctness just isn’t very interesting. Given the inevitability of change, the only question is how long a shift in spelling, syntax, punctuation, semantics, or any other aspect of usage should be in popular use before it becomes standard or accepted. Some people want things to move  fast, some people want things to move slow (except they would say slowly), and none of them has much of an impact on the actual rate of change.”

    If we can get over being nettled by them, shifts in syntax can be fascinating: “Frame started as a verb, meaning ‘to form,’ then became a noun meaning ‘border,’ and emerged as a new verb meaning ‘to put a frame around something.’” To catch a word in the act of crossing the border between one part of speech and another, or to investigate those that live in the borderlands, is to learn something useful and important.

    Possibly even more important is this: “I realized some time ago that I have a tendency to divide all experience–buildings, people, movies, songs, weather, roads, hamburgers–into two categories. The first category makes me happy to be alive. The other category makes me sad, or at best neutral. And, in the realm of language, that’s the kind of Manichaean division I care about, and that you’ll find throughout this book.” If you’re like me, in that Mencken, Fowler, and Pinker make you glad to be alive, Yagoda will too.

Email edition, July 2014

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Debt

Debt: the first 5000 years
David Graeber (2011, Melville House)

    “For thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors–of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors’s children into slavery.”

    All of these conflicts have their present-day incarnations, so it’s a little distressing that we know so little about their history. On economic matters, we may be able to think back thirty years, or seventy, or perhaps back two and a half centuries to Adam Smith’s inauguration of economics as a discipline. In Debt, the First 5000 Years, David Graeber suggests that even that would not be nearly enough perspective. The historical cycles involved have been going on as long as people have lived in cities. We also need to think about more than Economics alone: without a grounding of social and political history, economic theory tends to be both amoral and incoherent.

    What a delicious book Graeber has written to meet this need! It’s dense and chewy; there’s a page of bibliography for every ten pages of text (not counting the notes, which are also worth the price of admission.) He can focus on transactions too small to be repaid, like bumming a cigarette, as well as on historically epic ones like the transfer of the silver of Peru, by way of the Conquistadors, to the coffers of China, at a genocidal cost. He’s expansive on the Tiv tribe of Central Nigeria, whose debt and kinship arrangements make up a web of obligations and rights that are continuously rebalanced, yet with an awareness that money never really equals a life. If he’s a little more condensed on the Roman empire, Chinese peasant revolts, Islamic views of usury, Buddhism, and the Crusades, it’s because he flatteringly assumes that we have some acquaintance with them already, not because his own knowledge is any less.

    How many ways are there to become a slave? By kidnapping or  capture in war, as punishment for crime, by sale to repay one’s own or a parent’s debt. How do you turn a small-holder into a debt peon? Taxation, which requires him to borrow, if the tax must be paid in money. What’s the difference between peonage and slavery? The absence of a moral relationship between a master and a slave, because the slave has been torn from his or her human context.  These are questions almost more important than the answers, because we need to be able to recognize new forms these problems might take.

    Writing in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Graeber is particularly sharp  about the blinkered nature of standard economic theory; really, do you know any perfectly informed people, or any perfectly rational actors who aren’t psychopaths? What was Adam Smith’s agenda, anyway? He was a utopian, actually, and his model was imaginary, though parts of it have now been received wisdom so long that we don’t recognize the fact. “The problem with such models–at least, it always seems to happen when we model something called ‘the market’ –is that, once created, we have a tendency to treat them as objective realities, or even fall down before them and start worshipping them as gods.”

    The Market is a particularly pernicious false god, because, as Graeber puts it, “Any system that reduces the world to numbers can only be held in place by weapons, whether these are swords and clubs, or, nowadays, ‘smart bombs’ from unmanned drones.” One of the things we really need to do, if we grasp that infinite economic growth is impossible on a finite planet, is to remember that shared love and friendship are gifts beyond price.   


Email edition, June 1 2014