Thursday, June 27, 2013

Quantitative Reasoning at Yale-NUS College

"What mathematics should any well-educated person know? It’s rather rare that people have a chance not just to think about this question, but do something about it. But it’s happening now."

That is the beginning of an interesting article on Azimuth by John Baez, which I'm reposting because of its relevance to my environmental mathematics project.   He goes on:

"There’s a new college called Yale-NUS College starting up this fall in Singapore, jointly run by Yale University and the National University of Singapore. The buildings aren’t finished yet: the above picture shows how a bit of it should look when they are. Faculty are busily setting up the courses and indeed the whole administrative structure of the university, and I’ve had the privilege of watching some of this and even helping out a bit."

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Since you asked...

This arrived in the mail today from a credit card company:

Dear Credit Card Guy:  that was Jesus. Remember him?  I can understand you might not appreciate his "can't-serve-God-and-Mammon" line, but I'm still a bit surprised you chose to go head-to-head with the Man of Sorrows.

Or perhaps you just did not know where the quotation came from, but thought it so obviously foolish that it was worth making fun of?

Remember, then, that God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Will Subdivide

I saw this at a museum in New Paltz that I visited last month.  It's a notice from a newspaper - published, if I remember correctly, some time about 1800.

The thoughtless cruelty of that last line is heartbreaking:
They will be sold either separately or together, as may suit the purchaser.

 Like a plot of land which the seller is prepared to subdivide! John Kennedy, whoever he was, clearly thought of this whole business as no more fraught than a land sale - because it was, after all, a property transaction.

How could an apparently pious people get something so morally fundamental so wrong? In The Civil War As A Theological Problem, evangelical historian Mark Noll argues that when Americans turned to the Bible for guidance on this issue, their hermeneutic did not allow them to receive a clear answer. The "trumpet gave an uncertain sound" (I Corinthians 14:8) and, precisely for that reason, Americans "prepared themselves for battle".

I don't have any edifying conclusion here.  I reflect on the anonymous, exploited slaves - and on John Kennedy, ignorantly taking part in great wickedness - and I wonder what it is that I am blind to, today.

Monday, June 17, 2013

"Against Environmental Panic"

That is the title of an intriguing article by Pascal Bruckner that just appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  I have some doubts about my ability to summarize it - I'm reminded of something someone once said about Chesterton, "language as thick as clotted cream" - but I'll have a go and then try to share some thoughts of my own.

Bruckner seems to me to have two basic points to make:

(a) There is a religious resonance to much contemporary environmental talk, especially regarding those aspects of religion that have to do with sin and guilt:
Consider the meaning in contemporary jargon of the famous carbon footprint that we all leave behind us. What is it, after all, if not the gaseous equivalent of Original Sin?
 (b) There is also a catastrophist or apocalyptic resonance to our environmental talk, and this is "at once a recognition of real problems and a symptom of the aging of the West, a reflection of its psychic fatigue".  Whence does this come?  Bruckner skewers those who theorize disaster but who, like Saki's Sophie Chattel-Monkheim (The Byzantine Omelette) are conscious of "a comfortable feeling that the system...would probably last her time":
defeatism is... the second home of privileged peoples, the contented sigh of big cats purring in comfort. A tragedy that strikes far away transforms the platitude of our everyday lives into a high-risk adventure.
Bruckner does not like either of these, and his dislike leads him to conflate them, which results in some silly remarks:
Cataclysm is part of the basic tool-kit of Green critical analysis, and prophets of decay and decomposition abound.
A moment's reflection shows that one can believe (or warn) that some (or even many) things are going to get worse (which presumably is what being "a prophet of decay" means) without for a moment believing that  humanity is about to become extinct (which, it is clear from elsewhere in the article, is the kind of "cataclysm" that Bruckner is referring to).  As far as I can see, the most likely future for humanity on the earth is neither the "utopia" of endless progress nor extinction, but some kind of in-between.  Bruckner is perfectly right, though, that the temptation to frame things in terms of a Manichean alternative between good and evil is one that has beset many environmentalists; there is a lot of good writing about this over at The Archdruid Report (most recently here).

So what is Bruckner's response?  He sees that the Christian message that "a person's life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions" has something to say here, but he deconstructs it both  in its ancient and its modern application:
This way of thinking...constitutes above all a machine for legitimating a state of affairs. ...This kind of reasoning was very fertile in the works of the church fathers and of Leibniz, and also in those of the theorists of the "invisible hand," from Mandeville to Hayek, without forgetting totalitarian regimes that made it a fearsome weapon for subjecting people.
Why wait? Why hold back? The suggestion by a member of the European Parliament that we should use less electricity rouses his rhetoric to a higher pitch:
The project here is authoritarian. On reading its recommendations, we can almost hear the heavy door of a dungeon closing behind us.
But, one might ask,  don't we owe it to our children and grandchildren to exercise some restraint in order to improve their lives, if we can in fact do that? Not according to Bruckner, who calls future generations "conceptual ectoplasm" and comments:
In this rhetorical intoxication, the future becomes again, as it had once been in Christianity and communism, a tool of blackmail.
It's a shame that his valid warnings to the environmental movement, about the dangers of rhetorical excess and dualistic thinking, suffer from the same defects that he identified in his opponents.  In his dismissal of the "conceptual ectoplasm" one can hear echoes of the smart guy who, desiring to justify himself, thought to ask Jesus "And who is my neighbor". 

If he wanted clear boundaries, that didn't turn out so well.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Is recycling newspaper a carbon crime?

Recycling BinIf you ask your neighbor to think of some ways in which we can act to preserve the environment, it's pretty sure that recycling will be high on their list.  Recycling newspaper has a time-honored history, saving forests from logging for pulp, and keeping tons of newsprint out of landfills.

So it's a shock when someone suggests that recycling that newspaper may actually be harming the environment.  According to Richard Muller (Energy for Future Presidents), you might do better throwing that paper in the landfill after all.

The argument goes like this.  Take the very large-scale view of what goes on when newspaper goes into the landfill.  Trees are planted (most newsprint these days is made from tree "crops" planted for the purpose, not from old growth forests).  Then they are cut down, and (after passing briefly through your hands in the form of your daily newspaper) they are buried in the ground.  Presto! - carbon sequestration, that is, carbon is removed from the atmosphere and buried in the earth.  Global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is reduced, and thus global warming is slowed.

There is nothing wrong with this argument so far as it goes.  But of course there is a lot it doesn't take into account.  What about the costs (in land, energy, and other ways) of all that extra landfill space? What about landfill-generated methane? What about the fact that landfill constituents will eventually be broken down by bacteria and the carbon re-released?   This means that we're not permanently sequestering carbon by this process, just shifting the equilibrium a little bit.  I did a back-of-envelope calculation which suggested a less than one percent change in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration from burying the entire global output of newsprint for fifty years.

Apart from technicalities, though, I think the suggestion does us a service by reminding us that recycling is not an environmental panacea.  It's simply the worst not-absolutely-terrible option.  The other two R's - reduce and reuse - are a great improvement on recycling.

Photo by Flickr user Canton Public Library (MI), licensed under Creative Commons

Friday, June 7, 2013

No Longer Mad At Monsanto?
It's no secret that there are many, many things in the world to get angry about.  And anger can be a powerful force if it mobilizes us for constructive change - if it stirs us up to fight "for" rather than "against". 

There's a famous passage in the sixth chapter of the letter to Ephesians where St Paul writes: "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." And he goes on to urge his readers to take up "the whole armor of God", and to detail that in terms that have been memorized by generations of Sunday-school students.

But for me the phrase which stands out is the first one: We're not fighting against other human beings!  Recently I read a stellar post by Beth Berry which really brought this into focus for me. She writes
But the harder I fought against the system, the more obvious it became that the one I was really battling was myself, that the more energy I put into judging them, hating them and resisting reality, the weaker I became as an individual, and that the more disempowered I felt, the less change I was actually capable of creating.

You should read the whole article here.