Friday, December 12, 2014

Presenting at TEDx

It's just been made public that I will be presenting at @TEDxPSU next March 1st.   The official announcement is on TEDx's Facebook page ( and the bio text is mostly copied from my Wikipedia entry, which makes me - and by implication the talk - sound super academic and scary.  (Especially since the previously announced speaker is PSU's football coach!)  

Anyhow, I plan to use my few minutes of fame to talk about the "Math for Sustainability" project.  I want to say two thingsThe first thing is that mathematics - the "measuring, changing, risking, networking" toolkit that I have identified as central to MATH 033 - helps us see clearly, helps us to understand the choices and tradeoffs we are making today and the consequences that we are accepting for tomorrow.   The second thing though is that this clarity will not somehow absolve us from accepting responsibility for our values, as though we could somehow outsource  ethics to a giant cost-benefit analysis.  Feel free to share how you think these two themes, and this tension, can somehow be conveyed in ten minutes of TED format.

I have just started working with "speaker consultants", etc, about the talk.  It is clear that this is going to be very different from the kind of math lecture where the speaker walks into the room, fumbles around for a stick of chalk, and just goes with the flow.  I am nervous - and excited!   If you pray, pray that I will do this right.  It's a great opportunity.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

AAR considers canceling scholarly conference, citing climate impact

Laurie Zoloth
H/T to @erikbfoley for alerting me to this news.

From the New York Times: "If the bioethicist Laurie Zoloth, the president of the American Academy of Religion, has her way, she’ll be remembered as the woman who canceled her organization’s conference, which every year attracts a city’s worth of religion scholars.

Two weeks ago, at her organization’s gathering, which is held jointly with the Society for Biblical Literature and this year drew 9,900 scholars, Dr. Zoloth used her presidential address to call on her colleagues to plan a sabbatical year, a year in which they would cancel their conference. In her vision, they would all refrain from flying across the country, saving money and carbon. It could be a year, Dr. Zoloth argued, in which they would sacrifice each other’s company for the sake of the environment, and instead would turn toward their neighborhoods and hometowns."

In earlier posts (here and here) I did some simple calculations about the environmental impact of academic air travel.   It is significant.   Kudos to Dr. Zoloth for drawing attention to the issue, and for her practical, "turning the hearts to home" proposal to make a change.

Read the whole NYT article here.

Photo credit: From the New York Times article linked above.  Believed to be fair use.


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Health update - 6 months

The road goes ever on
At the end of April I was admitted for surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.  Over a delicate seven-hour operation, surgeons Kofi Boahene and Jeremy Richmon removed two tumors from the head and neck region.  One of them (Dr Richmon's) turned out to be cancerous, so after a month to get my strength back we returned to Hopkins in June (six months ago) for five weeks of intensive radiation treatment (Dr Harry Kwon) with supportive chemotherapy (Dr Christine Chung).   The end of treatment (just after the Fourth of July) was a day to celebrate, but with that intensity of radiation the effects keep coming at you for some weeks after treatment has stopped.  It was not until the beginning of August that I started feeling - very tentatively - a little better.   But this fall I have definitely been improving in health and energy, taking long hikes with Liane and fulfilling a long held desire by getting back to Seneca Rocks to climb in time for the annual chili cookoff, held in mid October.  Getting back on the sharp end of the rope required some focused not-listening to those voices in my head the night before that wanted to tell me I was now too sick (or too old!) to be leading - but, once I put fingers to rock again, those voices might as well never have been.  "Purity of heart is to will one thing", said Kierkegaard, and such is the meditative beauty of climbing: no room for noise, simply the joy of balance and movement.

I've been back a couple of times to the hospital and my next set of check-ups is scheduled for February.  Scans are good - no sign of recurrence - but of course there are some issues that I have to deal with after intense treatment like that.  I had quite severe hearing loss on my right side, caused by fluid buildup in the middle ear - but I've now had a tiny drain inserted (like a kid with an ear infection might) and that is helping enormously.   Perhaps related to that, I have been dealing with a recurrent sinus infection (antibiotics seem to have it under control).  A longer-term issue is the loss of movement in the jaw muscles caused by surgical and radiation damage.  I'm working with a physical therapist to increase flexibility here.  I've been a regular visitor to the PT department over the years but this is the first time I am not there for a climbing injury!

So all in all the news is good.  Thanks to all my friends who have sent their prayers and support over the last year's roller-coaster ride.  I'll try to keep you updated.  Hugs to all.   Having cancer has definitely made me a huggier person (as one of my former graduate students was startled to discover recently!)  Hug a friend today! (You can blame me if you like...)

Photo: author

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

News of MATH 033

Here's a Penn State press release regarding MATH033!

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Back in 2008, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain famously argued whether properly inflating the tires on America's roads would be enough to offset the need to reopen offshore drilling.

After a semester in John Roe’s Mathematics for Sustainability course (MATH033), students will be able to whip out their calculators, estimate the numbers and make a determination about whether properly inflating tires is beneficial or not.

MATH033 is a newly introduced course at Penn State that will be offered in spring 2015. Through this unique course, the students will be able to study sustainability from a mathematics perspective.
“Engaged citizens need to be skilled in talking about these issues," Roe explained, “and not just glazing over when the numbers come up.”

The class will carry out specific case studies and analyze sustainability issues that range from local Penn State campus waste management to global warming. Students will learn how to analyze sustainability issues by asking fundamental mathematical questions: How large? How fast? How risky? How connected?

“This class is so different than any math class I've seen,” said graduate assistant Sara Jamshidi. “It introduces ideas and concepts that few people outside of math or research get to see, and I think it does so in a very down-to-earth way.”

The aim of the course is for students to become informed citizens who are able to engage in discussions about sustainable resources, pollution, recycling, economic change and similar matters of public interest.

“When most people think about math, sustainability isn't usually a topic that crosses their mind,” said teaching assistant Kaley Weinstein. “But almost any sustainable decision made by someone ultimately has math behind it.”

Weinstein continued, “Since sustainability can be applied to everyone's life, it is important that people know how the math behind sustainability works.”

This course fulfills a GQ (general education-quantification) credit and is intended for students who are not mathematics majors.

The course is scheduled to take place from 2:30 to 3:20 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 115 Osmond. It is limited to 40 students, so interested students are encouraged to register now.

For more information about Mathematics for Sustainability, visit To learn more about sustainability at Penn State, visit

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Praying the Te Deum and Benedicite

"Let us now sing the first six verses of the Tedium".

That at any rate is how my mutinous younger self parsed the vicar's injunction, herded into traditional Anglican worship every Sunday morning at school, and by no means a believer at that time.  The vicar, also, seemed in a hurry to get on with the service - I don't think we ever recited more than the beginning of the canticle Te Deum Laudamus ("We praise Thee, O God") taken over by the Book of Common Prayer from the Catholic liturgy and thought to be written in the fourth century AD.  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

MOOC reflections

I'm three weeks into David Archer's Coursera course Global Warming: The Science and Modeling of Climate Change. There were several reasons I signed up for the course:
  • I'm interested in understanding climate science better, and this seemed a better way to get a first-shot overview than diving straight into a textbook like Pierrehumbert's Principles of Planetary Climate or Kaper and Engler's Mathematics and Climate.
  • I wanted to see whether there were ideas (both in terms of content and of teaching methods) that I could borrow for my Mathematics for Sustainability course next semester.
  • And, I had never taken part in a MOOC (massive online open course) and I was interested to see what the experience is like.
 So, three weeks in, how is it going?  A few thoughts.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Speed Kills

Fascinating article by Mark Taylor, chair of the department of religion at Columbia, in the Chronicle today.  It's titled "Speed Kills".  It takes a metaphorical cue from two-year-old op-ed in teh New York Times by Jared Bernstein, former chief economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.  The op-ed, entitled "Raise the Economy's Speed Limit", makes an analogy between the rate of GDP growth and the "speed limit" for the economy.  In other words, it confuses velocity with acceleration.

Taylor takes issue with the resultant vision of endlessly accelerating churn and what it does to human community.   Here are a couple of quotes:

In the past 50 years, two economies that operate at two different speeds have emerged. In one, wealth is created by selling labor or stuff; in the other, by trading signs that are signs of other signs. The virtual assets scale at a speed much greater than the real assets. A worker can produce only so many motorcycles, a teacher can teach only so many students, and a doctor can see only so many patients a day. In high-speed markets, by contrast, billions of dollars are won or lost in billionths of a second. In this new world, wealth begets wealth at an unprecedented rate. No matter how many new jobs are created in the real economy, the wealth gap created by the speed gap will never be closed. It will continue to widen at an ever-faster rate until there is a fundamental change in values.
and the final paragraph

Within the long arc of history, it becomes clear that the obsession with speed is a recent development that reflects values that have become destructive. Not all reality is virtual, and the quick might not inherit the earth. Complex systems are not infinitely adaptive, and when they collapse, it happens suddenly and usually unexpectedly. Time is quickly running out.

Read the whole thing here.

Photo by Kevin Kasper.  Public  Domain/Creative Commons License