2009-10-28 04:55 pm
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A big family

The relatives who care about our genealogy were in town over the weekend. I don't care enough to get my hands messy with it, but the results are interesting. I've got a whole bunch of branches and even though most of them originally came from England and Ireland they all took their own interesting paths. The Dalys, frex, did something to score a trip from Ireland to Australia, then worked their way east to Hawaii and landed in San Francisco (although, surprisingly, they are evidently not the Dalys of Daly City) and worked their way east before settling in the Rochester area with some adventures in silver mining and the like scattered in. And then they married into some classy East Coast families who've been around since the Mayflower landed.

So, today I got an email cascade giving a report on breaking news in ancestor chasing. I'm a little fuzzy on whether the person in question is an n-grandmother or an n-great-aunt (for some n), but they discovered that she was descended from Thomas Chittenden (the first governor of the independent Vermont Republic, and later the first governor of when it became the fourteenth state), and from him all the way back to John Lackland.

And my first reaction was "Whooo! I'm descended from a King of England!!" And my second reaction was "Wait, I'm descended from the crappiest King of England. I'm descended from the thumb-sucking lion in Disney's Robin Hood." Of course, nearly every WASP in North America is in the same boat, including every President except Van Buren. I guess there wasn't much for the nobility to do in the thirteenth century except impregnating every attractive woman they could find. So, I suppose I will be content with having been descended from Eleanor of Acquitaine.
2009-10-09 11:05 am
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A peace of my mind

I've long believed that organizations have the right to give subjective awards to whoever they want, and the public's recourse is to ignore them if they make dumb choices. If you want to decide that Forrest Gump was the best movie of 1994 or that the entire Universe should be represented by an eighteen year-old Venezuelan woman with breast implants and the talent to wear a bathing suit and high heels, then who am I to stop you? You just get tossed into the "Yeah, whatever" pile.

Now joining you in the "Yeah, whatever pile": the Nobel Peace Prize.

Granted, it's been close to the edge for a while now, what with their recent laureates including microcredit lenders and tree-planters. These are surely worthy causes, but I'm just not clear that they're promoting peace so much as prosperity and wellness in traditionally under-served communities. If I can squint, I can sort that a global environmental catastrophe would drive the world into local wars for shifting resources and that Al Gore deserves some sort of peacelike recognition for his efforts to forestall such an event, but it seems to me that the award should lift up people who actually negotiate treaties, reduce weapon proliferation, and embiggen non-combatants in war zones.

But Barack Obama hasn't even done the small stuff yet. "[E]xtraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples?" Lolwhut? I presume that the plural means that he's done that at least twice, but I can only think of deciding not to build the dopey missile shield in Eastern Europe and I'm not even convinced that that's extraordinary so much as simply rational. At the same time, if anything we're looking at a buildup of our military posture in Asia and the excesses in post-9/11 liberty curtailment are being entrenched rather than sunsetted. Is this just about how he is being rewarded for not being George Bush, or that he is the flag-bearer of post-racial America or that he paid our UN dues, because I'm going to bust my sides from laughing if they think that's worth the Nobel Peace Prize.

As you read in the papers that he is the third sitting President to win the award, be sure to keep in mind that hindsight has not made the selections of either Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson endorse the decision-making power of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, but at least those guys were selected for things that they had done rather than things they promised to do if elected.
2009-07-14 03:49 pm
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It all adds up

Alas, [personal profile] rivka doesn't crosspost her livejournal stuff to dw and I don't want to get another lj account just to respond to her posts (as thoughtful and marvelous as they are), but I was struck by her article here referencing this thesis (in PDF form) by Paul Lockhart (evidently a private high school teacher with the cache to teach an elective math course) that the high school mathematics curriculum in the United States has no redeeming values at all. Of course, his conclusion is nearly entirely correct, but his dualistic over-reaching and insipid straw-man dialogs are far more amusing than persuasive. His argument glorifying his research-focused methods and lambasting the soul-killing of everyone else seems to say "My students are able to see so far (due to *my* training, natch) in spite of the fact that giants are standing on their shoulders." Meh, it lacks that intuitive ring, which really strikes at the heart of whether Lockhart is the sort of mathematical leader we want to lead us into the next generation.

It's hard to have this conversation without an agreement on what mathematics IS, and what mathematical skills we need from the general population. This won't come without a struggle, and the way we do things now reflects our lack of consensus. Math is traditionally the language of both accountants and engineers, who each use their own fields with their own language. And you would work your way up the tower until you hit the limits of either your talent or leisure time and that would determine whether you were qualified to be a laborer, a manager, or an expert in some field like surveying or astronomy or what have you. This has served us for centuries all the way up through the time that Generation X (including me) was in high school, with the prize that people who have mastered calculus could train to study science and engineering in college.

There has been a rebellion against that model of education over the past ten or fifteen years, and quite a bit of it was well-deserved. The main problem (as I see it) was that we have been holding people in high school for the same length of time regardless of their ambition. When high school lasts for eight periods a day for four years whether you're training for a prestigious diploma or a lesser one, one might well ask what the sense is of anyone signing up for the lesser one besides the obvious conclusion that educators can't be bothered to challenge everyone. Plus, of course, mid-level bureaucrats had far too much power to limit the potential of women and minorities through the self-fulfilling argument that they didn't seem like the sorts of folk who could become engineers.

So now everyone is on the pre-college math track, which is probably great except that we didn't actually change the curriculum when we made that decision. The train is still making all of the local stops even though everyone is going to the end of the line, resulting in a fair amount of busywork that makes little sense in the broader context. For example, one spends quite a bit of time learning strategies for factoring polynomials in "Algebra II" that never get applied outside that cocoon because virtually all polynomials in "the real world" are irreducible. If we were to take side trips for the sake of showing off the breadth of mathematics, would that really be a part of anyone's plan?

And, needless to say, we haven't talked about the elephant in the room which is whether the four years of high school math should be obligated to shoot its entire wad in the name of satisfying the prereq for college freshman physics. Some of my best friends are engineers, but there are other things to be too. There are some mathematicians (including me and evidently Lockhart) who would argue that mathematics is bigger than the science of creating abstract models of physical phenomena for the sake of making better and simpler scientific predictions of real-world behavior, and should be broadened to consider the entire range of intellectual strategies to solve problems. Ordinary folk in my experience can get by without the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus but would be well served with some discrete topics like logic and graph theory. But it would take a larger mathematical revolution than I've ever experienced or even read about to knock calculus off the top of the mountain.
2009-05-03 10:51 am
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Contempt of Court

Okay, we're gearing up for another season of Supreme Court nominee follies. I hope everyone remembers that the roles are switched again. If you're used to arguing that someone would take the court into dangerous ground or that some youthful indiscretion is highly relevant to future governance, then those are now some conservative's lines. Don't steal them; we now believe that we live in a democracy and should just put the matter up for a fair vote in the Senate.

But whether the balance of power is with the left or the right, there are two things I am plum sick of hearing. Let's take this opportunity to silence them.

First, that we must be on guard against "activist judges" who "legislate from the bench". Enough. If you don't know what "judicial review" is, then look it up before you start talking in public. Yes, yes, it's not in the Constitution, and that tricksy John Marshall is a nasty usurper who decided that the judicial branch deserves to be a full-fledged member of the governmental triumverate, shut up. The precedent is two hundred and six years old, and is surely no small part of why the union survived so long. Get a helmet already.

Of course, perhaps Orrin Hatch is not so reluctant that the current Supreme Court is widely expected to eliminate key provisions of the Voting Rights Act just as soon as they can decide which is the right knife for the job. This is a bill that was embraced by both parties in the Legislature and triumphed by President Bush, and from what I understand it's difficult to find one of the affected states who is actually looking for relief. One wonders if the Court would decide that a local utility doesn't have standing to overturn a regulation on states if it were a more liberal issue, but no matter. The Supreme Court has the right to determine the constitutionality of laws, and if we don't care for that we can seek redress in constitutional ways. I only hope that this result will give us a respite from the concept that judges shouldn't be deciding what the laws are.

The second thing that I'm tired of hearing about is that we need to have judges who correctly interpret the will of the framers of the Constitution. This is one of those statements like "OUR pizzeria uses FRESH ingredients" that leaves you with the unstated impression that their competition does not. I doubt you make it out of law school, much less an exemplary judicial career, without appreciating the foundation of the Constitution at a significant level. I would hope that the overarching lesson is that the only thing the Framers agreed upon is that they had to compromise or else America wouldn't get out of the starting gate. (Alas, this seems to be the one lesson that Samuel Alito doesn't take to heart.) You can walk around history like a buffet saying that you agree with John Adams on this and Alexander Hamilton on that and James Madison on the other, but at the end of the day you're just cherry-picking to intellectually justify your personal notions of how the nation should be governed. That's unavoidable, but don't put yourself on a pedestal, and recognize that the rest of your colleagues are doing the exact same thing even if it turns out that they agree with Hamilton on this and Madison on that and Franklin on the other.

Okay, time in. Let's just pick someone who paid the taxes on their nanny, eh?