Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Mathematics for Sustainability - due for delivery!

Remember the Mathematics for Sustainability project that I used to talk about a lot?  (Hint: here are some links to earlier blog posts: one, two, three, four, five.   I could easily find more!)

The Math for Sustainability course (MATH 033) has been running for a couple of years now at Penn State. But it was never my dream just to teach this material on one campus or in one university system.

Today, I'm so happy to tell you that - together with my wonderful coauthors Russ deForest and Shahrzad (Sara) Jamshidi, pictured below - we have signed a contract with a major mathematics publisher to produce a textbook based on the Math for Sustainability materials - a textbook which will make it possible for this course to be taught at any college or university in the world.

Sara Russ
The book will be published by Springer-Verlag in their series Mathematics of Planet Earth.  It will be around 500 pages long, printed in full color, and will use only the math that you learn in high school.  The print book should cost around 60 bucks, and it will also be available online (for instance, Penn State students will be able to access the book online for free, because Penn State Libraries have a deal with Springer to give online access to all their books and journals.)  Remember, the audience we are aiming for is those college students who have to take "just one last math course" to fulfill a general education requirement.  My elevator pitch to them: "Okay, you have to take a math course. Would you rather learn the quadratic formula or would you rather save the planet?" There's quite an uptake for the second option!

We've undertaken to deliver the final manuscript at the beginning of July and, if there aren't any hold-ups in reviewing or production, we should see the first printed copies by the end of this year or early in 2018.  The kind of basic ability to think for oneself about sustainability questions, which we hope this book teaches, has seldom been so important to our world and to the future generations which the book is intended to reach.

Snippet of the book's preface  (click for full size)

Mind, when I have one, I probably should send a free copy to the White House as well!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Transgender People and the Body of Christ

Trans people welcome!
[Re-sharing this post because the previous image made it look specific to the event at PSU today - it isn't.]

This is a rough transcript of a presentation I gave to the Penn State Faculty-Staff Christian Fellowship, entitled Transgender People and the Body of Christ. The talk ran about half a hour, so this is quite a bit longer than a regular post on this blog.  I’m grateful to the group (which skews relatively conservative) for inviting me and for paying attention to what I had to say.

“Hello.  Why I am I here? Of course that’s easy to answer – because you invited me. But let me change the emphasis a little bit – why am I here? If you want to hear about the experience of transgender Christians, the best thing to do is to invite a transgender Christian, right?  (The Church has a terrible habit of pretending to know more about other people than they know about themselves.)  Or at least, since I’m not a transgender person myself, I should maybe have brought a transgender Christian person to support me, someone we could ask questions of? That would be a bit better than theorizing in the dark.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Why Work? (Part IV)

So, I'm coming back again to worrying about the future of work.  Previous posts in this series: part I, part II, part III.

As with part III, this is not an original post by me but a pointer to an article by someone else that I found helpful.  In this case, an article from the wonderful blog The Weekly Sift by Doug Muder.  In this post Doug muses on "Jobs, Income and the Future".   Here's his summary paragraph:

What “the jobs problem” is depends on how far into the future you’re looking. Near-term, macroeconomic policy should suffice to create enough jobs. But long-term, employing everyone may be unrealistic, and a basic income program might be necessary. That will be such a change in our social psychology that we need to start preparing for it now.
The argument is that artificial intelligence will eventually take over everything that we currently think of as a "job", or at least near enough everything that it makes no difference. I don't know whether "social psychology" is strong enough a concept to cover the adjustment neeeded if this should ever become reality, but Doug makes a case that it does:

Adjusting to that new reality will require not just economic and political change, but social and psychological change as well. Somehow, we will need to make meaningful lives for ourselves in a work-free technological Garden of Eden. When I put it that way, it sounds easy, but when you picture it in detail, it’s not. We will all need to attach our self-respect and self-esteem to something other than pulling our weight economically.

In the middle-term, there are things we can do to adjust: We should be on the lookout for other roles like student and retiree, that give people a socially acceptable story to tell about themselves even if they’re not earning a paycheck. Maybe the academic idea of a sabbatical needs to expand to the larger economy: Whatever you do, you should take a year or so off every decade. “I’m on sabbatical” might become a story more widely acceptable than “I’m unemployed.” College professors and ministers are expected to take sabbaticals; it’s the ones who don’t who have something to explain.

Already-existing trends that lower the workforce, like retraining mid-career or retiring early, need to be celebrated rather than worried about. In the long run the workforce is going to go down; that can be either a source of suffering or a cause for rejoicing, depending on how we construct it.

Most of all, we need to re-examine the stereotypes we attach to the unemployed: They are lazy, undeserving, and useless. These stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies: If no one is willing to pay me, why shouldn’t I be useless?

Social roles are what we make them. The Bible does not report Adam and Eve feeling useless and purposeless in the Garden of Eden, and I suspect hunter-gatherer tribes that happened onto lands of plentiful game and endless forest handled that bounty relatively well. We could do the same. Or not.
I'm not fully convinced by this, either by the idea that endless growth in AI and its supporting technologies is inevitable (given the constraints on overall growth that I've written about many times on this blog), or that, if such an AI upheaval fully comes to pass, the resources of "social psychology" will be enough to reorient our lives and sense of purpose.  But it is a wonderful article, worrying about all the right questions IMO.  Here again is the link.