Sunday, September 28, 2014

I am a MOOCer!

As I get ready for the anticipated launch of "Mathematics for Sustainability" next semester, I am very interested in what other people are teaching along similar lines.

How are they communicating scientific concepts without getting sunk by advanced mathematics?

How to manage online course materials (I am intending to have a significant blogging requirement in MATH 033)?

And I'm just excited to connect with other faculty who are see sustainability education as an important task across the disciplinary "silos" of the modern university.

These thoughts encouraged me to become a MOOC student in a course taught by David Archer at the University of Chicago.  It starts tomorrow so there is still time to sign up if you want to! 

The course, called Global Warming: The Science and Modeling of Climate Change, is available through the Coursera platform.  According to the course web site, "This course assumes no scientific knowledge and is geared toward a general audience. The problem sets require high-school-level algebra."

That may be of interest to some other readers of this blog, as well as to me. 



Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On the starting line for MATH 033

After a series of setbacks (bureaucracy... cancer... my own dilatoriness, probably) we are finally ready to do with "Mathematics of Sustainability" for next semester.

For any Penn State students reading this,  the course will be MATH 033 at 2:30 on MWF... sign up now!  (I attended an event organized by Penn State Net Impact this evening, and they will circulate info about the course, but all students with an interest in sustainability should consider it.)

Here's the official announcement and link to the course web site.  Preliminary versions of the course materials are available at the web site and I'd welcome comments or suggestions.


A new course, MATH 033 - Mathematics for Sustainability, will be introduced at University Park this spring.  This course meets GQ requirements and is designed primarily for students not in scientific and technical majors (which is also the case with MATH 034, MATH 035, and MATH 036).  Its key mathematical ideas of measurement, change, risk and connectivity are integrated around the central theme of environmental sustainability.   Students completing the course will gain the quantitative skills needed for informed participation in discussion of sustainability at the local, national and global levels.  More information can be found at the course website: http://sites.psu.edu/mathforsust/

Image by Peter Griffin from Public Domain Pictures.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Paul Krugman's Despair

A couple of important economic reports this week lay out the argument that climate mitigation measures such as a cap and trade or carbon taxation would not accrue nearly such high short-term costs as might at first be expected.  One of these is from the International Monetary Fund ("Carbon Pricing: Good for You, Good for the Planet") and the other, the New Climate Economy Report, is authored by a blue ribbon panel advised by top economists.  The message from both reports is that when one accurately counts even the short term benefits of carbon pricing measures (e.g. reductions in mercury pollution from coal burning) they will outweigh the short term costs.

Over at the New York Times, star economist Paul Krugman uses these reports to argue against the "dangerous" doctrine of what he calls "climate despair": that the "only way to limit carbon emissions is to bring an end to economic growth."  As he points out, this assertion can cut two ways: on the right, to claim that since growth must continue at all costs, we cannot afford climate policies that might reduce it; or on the left, to argue that physical constraints will sooner or later bring growth to an end, and that we should start planning for that era now.

It's the second of these positions that seems particularly baffling to Krugman.  With astonishment, he acknowledges that even some hard scientists argue that economic growth is physically constrained - according to Krugman, because "...they don't understand what economic growth means.  They think of it as a crude, physical thing..."

Apparently, if those like UCSD physicist Tom Murphy truly appreciated the non-physical (a.k.a. spiritual, what else should we call it?) aspect of economic growth, they would understand how it could float free of those pesky laws of thermodynamics!

In their book How Much Is Enough?, Robert and Edward Skidelsky demonstrate that from Adam Smith to Keynes and beyond, economists treated "growth" (they would probably have said "improvement") as a short-lived phase through which they hoped societies would pass until they reached the stage of "enough", the point where all their citizens could enjoy the resources needed for a good life.   It is only recently that "growth" has become detached from the objects that it was sought in order to attain, and has become regarded as an end in itself.

From this perspective, and whatever the short-term costs and benefits analyzed in the two reports I mentioned (and all can agree that the news in them seems good), the environmental limits revealed by climate change are important news, an euaggelion, not a message of despair: a message that calls humanity back to what really matters.

Message to Krugman: Crying "More" for ever is not what really matters.  Growth is an idol.  And bowing down to an idol is the true despair.

Image of Paul Krugman from the New York Times, believed to be fair use.
EDITED: Response to Krugman by Paul Heinberg of Post Carbon Institute here.
 


Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Light in the Brain

"You won't feel anything", they assure you the first time you head in to the radiation machine.  "It's just like a CAT scan".

That's almost true.  But, every time, for the first few cycles, I see a series of bright flashes at the periphery of my vision.  Though not everyone has this experience, it is fairly common among patients receiving radiation to the head.  The flashes are there just the same whether my eyes are open or shut.  They don't correspond to any actual light in the world outside.  Instead, they arise directly from stimulation of the brain (or the optic nerve) by the gamma-ray beam - tampering with the perceptual process and making me see things that aren't really there.

There's something a bit disquieting about this experience.  It disrupts our common way of thinking that the mental and the physical aspects of our existence are two quite separate realms, interpreted in different ways, with traffic between them permitted only at a few well-understood border posts.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Addleton Tragedy

Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle wrote fifty-six short stories about his detective hero, Sherlock Holmes.  The narrator, Holmes' companion Dr Watson, regularly tells us that his writings are only a selection form Holmes' case-book, and the hints he drops about Holmes' extra-canonical exploits are endlessly fascinating.  Who could not wish to learn more about "the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared" (The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire)? Why couldn't the whole story about "the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant" be given to the public (The Veiled Lodger)?  What exactly did Holmes infer from "the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day" (The Six Napoleons)?  And what were the "singular contents of an ancient British barrow" which gave rise to the Addleton Tragedy (The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez)?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Health update - week 14 or so

Climber at Donation Rocks
It must be good news that I can't remember what treatment week I am in now.  I've met a couple of people this week who've told me that they are reading this blog regularly, and wondered how I was doing because I haven't posted an update for a while.  It is such an encouragement to hear from people who care!   Speaking for myself, I would suggest, if you have a friend who is sick or grieving or troubled, and you feel that you "don't know what to say" to them - then reach out!  It says so much when you reach out,  saying (or doing) something rather than nothing, that you shouldn't worry too much about saying absolutely the right thing.

Anyhow, the past month has been marked by slow but steady improvement in my strength, stamina and enjoyment of life.  I've finished with all the numerous medications that I had to take - I seem to have enough leftovers to open a pharmacy! - and I don't have any pain worth mentioning.  I'm also sleeping much better - it seems (though I'm not sure) as though the removal of my sinus tumor may actually be helping me sleep more comfortably.  I've been rock-climbing a couple of times at Donation, and noticed my strength returning.  The line in the picture is called the "Shark's Tooth" - by its easiest route it is not too hard, but I was pleased last week to find that I have the strength to pull up over the "tooth" again. I'm also considerably lighter, which ought to help my climbing but its most obvious effect is to make me need a new harness because the old one has become rather loose!

And I am enjoying getting back to the classroom in the low-stress environment of a graduate seminar.  A couple of weeks ago, before classes began, I traveled back to Johns Hopkins for what I imagine will be the first of many follow-ups. Although this did not involve any detailed tests, the doctors were very pleased with my progress and made a lot of encouraging comments.  And the DEVICE has succeeded in improving my jaw opening by about 40 percent!  Next check-up is mid October and (unless something weird happens) I most likely won't post another health update until then.  Time to get back to the enviro-blogging!

Photo from the web site of the Climbers Coalition of Central Pennsylvania

Friday, August 22, 2014

Information Aversion

In II Chronicles 18, the kings of Israel and Judah, Ahab and Jehoshaphat, make an alliance to go to war together.  Before they march out, though, Jehoshaphat makes a request: "Inquire first for the word of the Lord."  Ahab "gathered the prophets together, four hundred of them" and they unanimously proclaim that victory is at hand. Jehoshaphat though is not fully convinced: "Is there not here another prophet of whom we may inquire?".  Grudgingly, Ahab admits "There is one, Micaiah ben Imlah...but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but always evil."

Ahab is suffering from information aversion - he is strongly motivated not to know, indeed he is willing to pay a price to ignore, what Micaiah may be going to tell him.  In Azimuth today, John Baez has a great post on some modern research on this topic, and its implications for climate change.  It begins:

Why do ostriches stick their heads under the sand when they’re scared?

They don’t. So why do people say they do? A Roman named Pliny the Elder might be partially to blame. He wrote that ostriches “imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed.”

That would be silly—birds aren’t that dumb. But people will actually pay to avoid learning unpleasant facts. It seems irrational to avoid information that could be useful. But people do it...
Read the rest here

Photo: Ostrich, mouth open CC BY 3.0
Donarreiskoffer - Own work