The Spectre of Math

November 4, 2016

Save Euro, vote Trump!

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Uncategorized — jlebl @ 3:35 am

Reading the news [1], I thought of one possible beneficiary of a Trump win.  Since most people seem to think (I’d say correctly) that the US economy will be a lot weaker and unpredictable in case of a Trump win, dollar is probably going to lose value.  One of the main things that we (US) export is the dollar, as countries buy dollars as the world’s main reserve currency.  But with Trump in the white house, euro will look more appetizing as a reserve currency.

A similar thing could probably be said about brexit, which made the pound less appetizing, though dollar is far more of an important foe for euro.  GPB went from $1.5 a year ago to $1.2 today.

So Trump is our gift to Europe.  We are such good friends we are willing to shoot ourselves in the foot (or worse), to help you.  Make Europe Great Again!  On the other hand apparently peso is suffering even more than dollar in case of Trump win …


October 27, 2016

Obama/Romney vote share versus teacher salaries, or don’t tell me that Republicans and Democrats are the same.

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Teaching — jlebl @ 7:12 pm

I  spent a few minutes after lunch while procrastinating from grading, putting together the following data.  First I took the states by the 2012 Obama minus Romney vote share in percent by state [1], and then teacher salaries by state [2]. Then I ran linear regression on the sucker.  R2 is not a shabby 0.347.  See here:

One thing you can read off the graph for example is that: Each 1 percent of vote flipped from Republicans to Democrats gives teachers a $682 yearly pay raise. Of course I am greatly simplifying🙂 But the trendline is clearly there.

See the full spreadsheet, if you want to see and play with the whole data, though I didn’t really clean it up much.

I’m sure someone already did this somewhere…



December 15, 2015

Esperanto and Math Textbooks, #EsperantoLives

Filed under: Esperanto,Mathematics,Teaching — jlebl @ 12:01 am

I haven’t made a post in quite a long time, and I was thinking I’ll take the opportunity of the #EsperantoLives campaign to make one.  I want to focus on Esperanto’s usefulness for math, specifically for access to math education in the developing world (and some tangential topics).  Perhaps a longer post than most this is an informal essay on the subject.

What is Esperanto?  It is a created language, on purpose made very regular, easy to learn, and generally made to avoid ambiguities and idioms and things that make communication between cultures difficult.  It is also intended to be a second language for everyone, giving no one an unfair advantage.

Let’s talk a bit about math textbooks, something which those that know me, know is a favorite topic of mine.  This is really about college-level textbooks, though some of it applies to lower levels.  Nowadays if you look on Amazon to look for the new version of Stuart’s calculus, it is something like $300.  It’s a great book, but while that price might be sort of OK for a middle class American or European, it doesn’t cut it when you talk about poorer students, and most definitely not students in developing countries.   There has been quite a push recently for high quality free textbooks to partially attack the problem.  That is, low cost books for the poor Americans and some Europeans; there’s quite a choice of math textbooks at the college level in English which are free.  Even some poorer countries benefit.  My textbooks are used in places like Tanzania or India.  But what if you happen to live in a part of the world that does not speak English?  The developing world where English is not spoken is at a huge disadvantage in terms of their education.  It is very difficult to translate textbooks into every possible language and so those students from large rich countries will always have access to more.

There are two choices.  A short term (and far from ideal) solution is to push for say English education in the developing world so that they have better access to educational materials.  A poor country that does not speak English nowadays is in a big disadvantage if it wishes to grow the ranks of its university educated.  But, even if those students learn English, their command of the language is likely to be poor, and given that English (like any natural language) is prone to being vague, that compounds the problem.  Especially for technical fields like math, science and engineering, where precision is paramount.

The second choice (much more long term) is to move to Esperanto (or a similar language).  There are several advantages.  Since it is meant to be a second language for everyone, nobody is at a disadvantage.  It can be mastered quickly and it avoids ambiguities, meaning understanding materials is less of a problem.

This may seem to assume universal adoption as a second language which is probably not realistic even in a very far future.  But we don’t need to get it perfect.  We don’t even need to get close.  We just need to get closer.  If e.g. EU decides on starting to push Esperanto as a common language, it would be enough.  Creating educational materials for higher education is sufficiently a niche, that it is hard for even smaller rich countries to cover all the bases.  If majority of Europeans spoke Esperanto at some point, educational materials could be easily shared.  But it would also mean that other developing countries get to use the work if they start teaching Esperanto.  Just like currently countries where English is spoken to some degree are able to take advantage of the wealth of material now.

You might say it is a naive unrealistic dream, … perhaps.  You might say that English is the “lingua franca,” but that’s really only true in the western world.  English is not even the most spoken language in the world.  Furthermore, I am not talking about the next 10 years, not the next 50 years, and perhaps not the next 100 years.  Around 70-80 years ago, there could be a good case made that French would not be displaced as the “lingua franca” by anyone.  And 100 years ago, French was clearly the international language without an argument.  200 years ago, Latin was still used as the “lingua franca” in science and medicine.  So things that might seem immutable, unchangeable, can in fact change in a few decades.

Finally, perhaps more tangentially, Esperanto would be far better for science.  Most international science is nowadays done in English, but from my own experience, there are many good even world renown mathematicians whose English is quite sub-par.  Many mistakes enter the literature, many results are ignored or lost, because the right person couldn’t quite read or write English well enough.  And remember up till 1800s, all math was done in Latin.  Then up till the 1960s it was very common to see German and French.  Russian was commonly used even later than that.  And there are still many publications in national languages.  The language used can change within a generation or two. Because Esperanto is easy to learn, if it starts making inroads into science it could take over much quicker than English did in the last half a century.

What can we in the rich developed world do?  We can learn Esperanto, and help create more texts and educational material in Esperanto (among other things).  We have the luxury to do so.  I myself plan to do some translating of my books to Esperanto at some point once I gain more confidence that I am writing good Esperanto, not just passable Esperanto.  And long term, we will fare much better with a more connected and generally richer world if we do.  Think about how much we are putting into medicine and technology, while large parts of the world are simply trying to survive.  What if every country could produce and then employ great scientists and engineers in the same quantity as we do.

So how did I get into Esperanto?  I heard of Esperanto and the idea behind it a long time ago and was always thinking about learning it, but have only started learning recently once it came out on Duolingo.  That seemed to be the only way to keep me motivated.  I’ve been learning since end of May this year, and by now I can read books, magazines, hold an online conversation in Esperanto.  I could probably hold a live conversation as well, though I’ve not tried yet.  On the other hand I’ve been on and off learning French for basically let’s say the past two decades, including very actively the past year.  I have so far failed to get to any sort of usable level.  So, Esperanto definitely is a lot easier to learn.  Both from a point of view of grammar (simple grammar with no exceptions), and from the point of view of vocabulary (lots of words are put together from fewer basic roots).

Kaj tio estas ĉio.

December 3, 2014

Grossly violating elections

Filed under: Politics — jlebl @ 5:07 pm

Russia reports gross violations in Moldova elections [1].  And Russia knows all about grossly violating elections…

November 26, 2014

Law of large numbers: idiots, monkeys, CEOs, politicians, and nuclear war

Filed under: Economics,Mathematics,Politics — jlebl @ 1:26 am

Something that seems to be ignored by many people is the law of large numbers.  Suppose you take an action that has 99% rate of success.  That’s 1% chance failure.  Tiny!  Well do it enough times, and failures will happen.  Given enough candidates with 1% chance of winning, one of them will win.  Then everybody is surprised (but shouldn’t be).  Suppose that in the 435 seats for congress, there were all candidates that according to polls had 99% chance to win, and there was always a second candidate with 1% chance of winning.  I would expect 4or 5 of the underdogs to win.  If they didn’t we were wrong about the 99%.

Or how about entrepreneurs.  Suppose you take 100 idiots.  They each get a totally whacky idea for a new business that has 1% chance of success.  One of them will likely succeed.  Was it because he was smart?  No, there was enough idiots.  We should not overvalue success if we do not know how many other similar people failed, and how likely was success.  What if you have a person who started two businesses that had 1% chance of success.  Was that person a genius?  Or did you just have 10000 idiots.  You have surely heard that giving typewriters to monkeys will eventually (if you have enough monkeys and time) will produce works of Shakespeare.  Does this mean that Shakespeare was a monkey?  No.  There weren’t enough idiots (or monkeys) trying.  Plus the odds of typing random sentences, even if they are grammatically correct, and ending up with something as good as Shakespeare are astronomically low.  Shakespeare was with a very very very high degree of confidence not a monkey.  I can’t say the same for Steve Jobs.  The chance of Jobs having been a monkey are still somewhat smaller than your general successful CEO.  Think of the really important decisions that a CEO has to make, there aren’t that many.  If we simplified the situation and went simply with yes/no decisions on strategic things, there are a few in the lifetime of a company.  Most decisions are irrelevant to the success, and they even out: make a lot of decisions that make a small relative change and you will likely be where you started (again law of large numbers).  But there are a few that can make or break a company.  Given how many companies go bust, clearly there are many many CEOs making the wrong make or break decisions.  So just because you hired a CEO and he made a decision to focus on a certain product and drop everything else, and you made it big.  Does it mean your CEO was a genius?  Flipping a coin then gives you 50% chance of success too.

Same with stock traders.  Look and you will find traders whose last 10 bets were huge successes.  Does it mean that they are geniuses?  Or does it simply there are lots of stock traders that make fairly random decisions and some of them thus must be successful.  If there are enough of them, there will be some whose last 10 bets were good.  If it was 10 yes/no decisions, then you just need 1024 idiots for one of them to get all of them right.  They don’t have to know anything.  Let’s take a different example, suppose you find someone that out of a pool of 100 stocks has for the last 3 years picked the most successful one each year.  This person can be a total and complete idiot as long as there were a million people making those choices.  The chance of that person picking the right stock this year is most likely 1 in 100.  Don’t believe people trying to sell you their surefire way to predict the stockmarket, even if they are not lying about their past success.

OK.  More serious example of law of large numbers: Suppose your country does a military operation that has 99% chance of success and 1% chance of doom to your country.  Suppose your country keeps doing this.  Each time, it seems it is completely safe.  Yet, eventually, your country will lose.  You start enough wars, even with overwhelming odds.  Your luck will run out.  Statistically that’s a sure thing.  If you want your country to be around in 100 years, do not do things that have even an ever so tiny chance of backfiring and dooming that country to failure.  You can probably guess which (rather longish) list of countries that I am thinking of, which with good odds won’t be here in 100, 200, or 500 years.

Let’s end on a positive note:  With essentially 100% probability humankind will eventually destroy itself with nuclear (or other similarly destructive) weapons.  There seem to be conflicts arising every few decades that have a chance of deteriorating into nuclear war.  Small chance, but positive.  Since that seems likely to me to repeat itself over and over, eventually one of those nuclear wars will start.  It can’t quite be 100%, since there is a chance that we will all die in some apocalyptic natural disaster (possibly of our own making) rather than nuclear war.  Since there is also a small chance that everybody on earth gets a heart attack at the same exact time.  Even if we make sure we don’t do anything else dangerous (such as nuclear weapons), civilization will end one day with a massive concurrent heart attack.

August 9, 2014

Numbers again

Filed under: Politics — jlebl @ 4:43 pm

I like to get fake enraged when people get caught up in very silly misunderstanding of numbers. And often this misunderstanding is used by politicians, extremists, and others to manipulate those people.

The most recent and prominent example is the Israel-Gaza conflict. The story is that Hamas rockets are endangering Israeli lives. OK, yes they do, but you have to always look at the scale. Since 2001 (so in the last 13 years), there have been 40 deaths in Israel from Gaza cross border rocket and mortar fire [1]. 13 of those are Soldiers, and one could make the case that those were military targets, but let’s ignore that and count 40. Of those fatalities, 23 happened during one of the operations designed to remove the rocket threat. One could argue (though I won’t, there won’t be a need) that without those operations, only 17 Israelis would have died.

OK, so 40 people in 13 years. That’s approximately 3 deaths per year. When I recently read an article about toxicity of mushrooms [2], the person being interviewed (the toxicologists) made an argument that mushroom picking in Czech is not dangerous, only 2-3 deaths per year (and vast majority of Czechs will go mushroom picking every year, even we do when we’re over there, it’s a Czech thing). Clearly it is not enough to worry the toxicologists. And Czech is about the same size as Israel in terms of population.

When my granddad (a nuclear physicist) with his team computed the number of new cancers due to Chernobyl in Czech after the disaster, they predicted 200 a year. Trouble was they couldn’t verify it, because 200 a year gets hidden in the noise. In a country of 10 million, if we take 80 year lifespan, 125000 people will die every year of various causes, a large proportion of them to cancer (many of them preventable cancer that the state does not try to prevent since it would mean unpopular policies). So 3 deaths a year is completely lost in the noise. So if Israel would spend the money it spends on fighting Hamas, even if we buy into the propaganda that this will defeat Hamas, if it would spend the money on an anti-smoking campaign, it would likely save far more Israeli lives every year.

Another statistic to look at is car accidents: In Israel approximately 263 people died on the road in one year. So your chances of dying in a car accident are almost 100 times larger. In fact, death by lighting in the US average at 51 per year [4]. Rescaling to Israel (I could not find Israel numbers) you get about 1.4 a year. That’s only slightly less than what Hamas kills in a year. In fact it’s about how many civilians they kill. So your chances as an Israeli civilian of being killed by a rocket or mortar are about the same as being killed by lightning. Not being struck by lightning by the way, because only 1 in 5 (approximately) of those struck die. So your chances of being struck by lightning are bigger, let’s say approx 6-7 people in Israel will get struck by lightning every year.

An argument could be made that most Israelis killed were in Sderot (I count 8), so your chances of being killed there are bigger (and correspondingly, your chances of being killed by a Hamas rocket based on current data if you are in say Tel Aviv are zero). Anyway, 8 in 13 years is about 0.6 a year in Sderot. Rescaling (based on population) the car deaths to estimate the number of deaths per year in Sderot we get approximately 0.8 deaths per year in Sderot. So your chances of dying in a car crash are higher, even if you live in Sderot (your chances of dying from cancer are much much higher).

The politicians supporting Israel’s actions often don’t worry about logical contradictions stemming from the above facts. When Bloomberg visited Israel he lambasted the fact that some airlines stopped flying to Tel-Aviv on rocket fears. He said that he never felt safer there. Well, if he never felt safer, why is Gaza being bombed?

None of this in any way is an apology for Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organization that aims to kill civilians. But Hamas is almost comically incompetent at doing so. If it weren’t a sad thing, we ought to laugh at Hamas. Anyway, clearly an incompetent murderer is till a murderer if he manages to kill even one person. The question is, what lengths should you go to to apprehend him.

Now the costs. Gaza has 1.8 million people. One should expect about 20-30 thousand natural deaths per year. This year, Israel kills 2000 Gazans. So very approximately about 1 in 10 to 1 in 15 Gazans that dies this year will die at Israel’s hands. Now think what that does to the ability of Hamas, or even far more radical groups to recruit. My grandmother grew up in the post WWII years, so she has not lived through WWII as an adult, yet she harbored deep hatred of all Germans. This was common in Europe. People used to hate each other, and then every once in a while they would attempt to kill each other. If you are on the receiving side of the killing (and only your relatives get killed), you are very likely to have this deep hatred that could very well be used by extremists (think back to the Balkans and especially Bosnia). It takes generations to get rid of it. I don’t resent the Poles or the Ukrainians even though I had Galitian Jewish ancestors that probably had no love for either. But 70 years ago, these three groups managed to literally destroy the whole region by killing each other (well the Germans and Russians helped greatly in the endeavor). There is probably very few people in the region whose family actually comes from there.

The point is, that the cost of the operation, besides the moral outrage of killing thousands of people, is pushing back the date that Israel can live in peace with its neighbors.

Another cost to Israel is the rise of anti-semitism. Just like violent actions by muslim extremists created a wave of anti-muslim sentiment in the West, violent acts by Israel will only strenghten anti-semitic forces. You are giving them perfect recruiting stories. If they had any doubts, they don’t have them now. Maybe as a positive aspect, it will justify Israeli contention that hatred of Israel is based on anti-semitism, since by creating anti-semitic sentiment, yes, more of it will be. The fact that the deputy speaker of parliament in Israel calls for conquest of Gaza are forcefully removing the Gazans into “tent camps” and them out of Israel [5], does not help. Maybe he should have called it “final solution” to the problem. Surely there would be no problem with that phrase.

Another thing about numbers is that Israel depends on America giving it cover (and weapons). Israel does not realize that american opinion is shifting (in part due to its own actions, in part since these things always shift in time). See [6]. Basically once the young of today will be the older folks of tomorrow, Israel won’t be seen the way it is now. It might be that US will also shift towards some other group as being important in american politics. Given the growth in the Latino population, it should be clear that Israel will at some point stop being the priority for many politicians. Given that we will also approach the world oil peak, and that us oil will once again start running out once we’ve fracked out what we could frack out, oil will become again more important. And Israel does not have oil. Israel is religiously important, but recall that Americans are mostly protestant Christians, not Jews, so it’s not clear where that will go (looking at history of that relationship is not very encouraging). A large percentage of Americans thinks the world is only a few thousand years old and the end of times will come within their lifetime and the battle of Armageddon will come, and blah blah blah. Who knows what that does to long term foreign policy.

Remember I am talking about decades not years. One should worry about what happens in 20, 30, 40 years. You know, many of us will still be around then, so even from a very selfish perspective, one should plan 40 years ahead. Let alone if one is not a selfish bastard.

Then finally there is this moral thing about killing others … Let’s not get into morals of the situation, that’s seriously f@#ked up.


July 24, 2014

News …

Filed under: Politics — jlebl @ 4:29 pm

Interesting reading and comparison of news regarding Ukraine and Gaza. So apparently according to Russian media, people in the west have bad opinion of Russia only because the west has had a long lived fascist hatred of Russians. According to Israeli media, the rest of the world (except US) has a low opinion of Israel only because they are all anti-Semite.  It can’t be because anything we do or say, because we are perfect: even our farts do not smell [citation needed].

Rather interestingly [1], fewer (almost by half) Russians view Israel negatively percentagewise than do Americans.  So Americans are almost twice as anti-Semitic as Russians (this might be news to Jews living in Russia).

If negative opinion of a country was purely based on racism, then it means that racists are able to distinguish between for example North and South Koreans. Also South Koreans are really really racist, and they really really irrationally hate the North Koreans. Essentially as much as Egyptians irrationally hate Israelis. By the way notice that the survey asked if the country (not its people) has a positive influence on the world, but we are assuming I guess (at least in Russian and Israeli media) that nobody can tell the difference between the country and its citizens.

Also the French and the Germans seem to really really love each other. I mean … get a room you two. I mean the French and the Germans have always liked each other. Good thing the survey did not ask about Belgians, because those guys are terrible, we all hate the Belgians.

An interesting piece of information from that study is that Nigerians pretty much have a positive view of the world. Most countries they overwhelmingly love. And even Israel and North Korea manage to get over half of Nigerians to like them. They aren’t too crazy about Iranians and Pakistanis, but it’s not too bad either.

It must be wonderful to live in the world of simple explanations that always seem to indicate that the group you belong to is somehow superior to others, and others simply hate you because you are so good. I think we had a word for that …


April 16, 2014

Putin vs. Godwin

Filed under: Politics — jlebl @ 5:18 am

I call Godwin’s law on Russia.  So, by the rules of Usenet, Russia has lost the argument.

I think the security council should adopt Godwin’s law.  Any time you call anyone a Nazi during an argument, you lose your veto power for that issue.

February 27, 2014


Filed under: Economics,Politics — jlebl @ 12:43 am

When reading news, one should do some quick calculations to test for ridiculousness.  It really makes reading news far funnier.  Let us look at the 19 billion dollar deal where Facebook bought WhatsApp.  It is especially hilarious if we interpret this as how much do we as a society value WhatsApp versus some other things.  These are based on just quick googling, but they are for just eyeballing the thing, not to be taken exactly.

1) Minimum wage hike.  There are about 3.6 million people at or below mimimum wage [1] (2012 data).  If we suppose that they would work 250 days a year for 8 hours a day, the current $2.85 proposed hike ($10.10-$7.25) would amount to 2.85 \times 8 \times 250 \times 3,600,000 = 20,520,000,000.   So about the same.  Facebook could have paid everyone on minimum wage the hike for a year.  But of course I’ve overestimated I doubt everyone on minimum wage works 8 hours a day 5 days a week.

2) NASA budget is about 16 billion in 2013 [2].  So WhatsApp is actually worth more than all that NASA does in a year.

3) Nominal GDP [3].  Czech Republic is about $196 billion.  Ten WhatsApps is the GDP of the whole country of 10 million people (where WhatsApp has 55 employees, so 10 of them have 550 employees).  Jamaica has nominal GDP of $13 billion or so.  WhatsApp is way more than that.  OK, you say, that’s just one year.  Suppose that WhatsApp (what it does) works out to working for 5 years before it becomes obsolete.  That’s 3.8 billion per year.  The GDP of Cayman Islands is $3.3 billion.  And that’s where Facebook is taking its profits to avoid paying taxes [4].

4) The University of California budget for 2013-2014 is $6.2 billion [5].  WhatsApp would fund the UC for 3 years.  WhatsApp apparently produces so much good for our society that it equals about the output of the entire UC system for 3 years.






February 3, 2014

New computer, still with MATE …

Filed under: LaTeX,Technology — jlebl @ 7:53 pm

I just got a new work laptop, the Dell XPS 13 developer edition.  Even for a day installed GNOME 3 on it.  Then I realized that I can’t work with two different desktops at the same time, so I went back to MATE.  I can’t change my work computer to GNOME because the dual-monitor support is terrible in GNOME shell.  Oddly it seems that dual monitor is a corner case for GNOME devs now.  Strange as Linux is more used in the “workstation” market than “home desktop” market, and if I look around the offices here, whoever can (has funding) does have a dual monitor setup on their workstation.  GNOME sucks as a workstation.  It might be fine as a place to launch a web browser, email, chat, whatever it is that kids do nowdays.

The other thing is that this has a pretty high DPI, and EVERY desktop kind of sucks at this.  I don’t think that mid 30’s is too old to use computers, but there are things which are definitely harder on this thing and require squinting.  My eyesight is not what it used to be, but it’s not that bad.  I can get most (but not all) fonts to be bigger.  But for example chrome I can’t get to be bigger everywhere, that is, yes on the webpages, but no on the tab headers.  Also UI elements in other things are tiny, like scrollbars are suddenly hard to hit because they are tiny.  Why don’t these things also scale?  That’s annoying.  Smaller resolution is OK, but blurry and sucky.

Another annoying thing is this really godawful thing called a click-pad.  It makes the assumption that just because you can do something, you should.  So the top of the “buttons” are now also place where the “mouse” moves.  So by pressing the button I am also moving the mouse, often clicking somewhere else.  So now if I want to click on something two things happen: 1) the mouse jumps somewhere completely different 2) or I can’t hit it.  Put that together with the small controls and you have a recipe for disaster.  I continually click on things I don’t want to.

Ahh well … There are nice things about the laptop too, like the size, and the case.  Though it doesn’t have a lock hole, which is really anoying … in a coffee shop, am I supposed to take the laptop to the bathroom with me?  I know it’s small, but taking your laptop with you to pee is kind of weird.  Oh yeah … ended on another complaint …

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