Monday, March 30, 2009

Going against conventional wisdom

Yesterday, after checking the ESPN Web site to see the score in the basketball game and noting it was close with Michigan State on top, I decided to watch the second half. The Big Ten hadn't fared too well in the tournament until then, so this was more a loyalty thing than expecting anything else. Michigan State has been a second half team all year so I thought they had a decent chance based on that. But what I saw surprised me.

As a rule I don't check the betting line before watching a game (Louisville was a 6.5 point favorite). The announcers kept making the point that Louisville was the overall number 1 seed in the tournament. But sometimes its a matter of match ups, game plan, and fight. Michigan State was quicker to the ball and scrappier than Louisville. I had the same sensation watching that second half as I did 30+ years ago watching the Light Heavyweight Championship bout between Mike Rossman and Victor Galindez. My recollection is that Rossman had a peekaboo style that Galindez never figured out. Galindez was more powerful but he never really connected solidly and eventually he punch himself out. Likewise Louisville never figured out that they needed to raise their intensity level and eventually they faltered..

Who had Michigan State in their brackets? Listening to the Michigan State coach, Tom Izzo, this wasn't an upset. Louisville had exploitable weaknesses and Michigan State found them. The question is who else saw it that way? I didn't.

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There's an interesting piece in the NY Times Magazine this week about Freeman Dyson, worth the read even if it challenges your assumptions. Dyson is a Doubting Thomas on Global Warming, an outlier among scientists or so it seems. I'll get to the gist of his arguments in a minute. Whatever you think of those, some of the rest of piece is really quite fascinating. Dyson sees fundamental learning - creating knew knowledge - as a subversive activity. It undermines the establishment. He seemingly gets great pleasure from causing such disruption. How about this one on creativity?

“Being bored is the only time you are creative”

Sounds ridiculous, I know. Except when I was a grad student at Northwestern once a semester I'd drive back to New York to see my folks and I came to like those rides because it gave me time for my mind to wander. Now read this passage.

The breakthrough came on summer trips Dyson made in 1948, traveling around America by Greyhound bus and also, for four days, in a car with Feynman. Feynman was driving to Albuquerque, and Dyson joined him just for the pleasure of riding alongside “a unique person who had such an amazing combination of gifts.” The irrepressible Feynman and the “quiet and dignified English fellow,” as Feynman described Dyson, picked up gypsy hitchhikers; took shelter from an Oklahoma flood in the only available hotel they could find, a brothel, where Feynman pretended to sleep and heard Dyson relieve himself in their room sink rather than risk the common bathroom in the hall; spoke of Feynman’s realization that he had enjoyed military work on the Manhattan Project too much and therefore could do it no more; and talked about Feynman’s ideas in a way that made Dyson forever understand what the nature of true genius is. Dyson wanted to unify one big theory; Feynman was out to unify all of physics. Inspired by this and by a mesmerizing sermon on nonviolence that Dyson happened to hear a traveling divinity student deliver in Berkeley, Dyson sat aboard his final Greyhound of the summer, heading East. He had no pencil or paper. He was thinking very hard. On a bumpy stretch of highway, long after dark, somewhere out in the middle of Nebraska, Dyson says, “Suddenly the physics problem became clear.” What Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga were doing was stylistically different, but it was all “fundamentally the same.”


Dyson on Global Warming doesn't sound so unreasonable to me. The first point goes back to stuff we learned in grade school about the symbiotic relationship between plants and animals. You know, the stuff about plants consuming carbon dioxide and producing oxygen and animals doing the opposite. So if greenhouse gasses are on the increase, there is a natural self-regulatory mechanism in the biology. I have no way to evaluate that argument on its merits but I do believe in general that forecasting models, in economics as well as in meteorology, probably do a reasonably good job for small perturbations, but really go awry with big changes. However, Dyson's biology argument seems really there only to set the stage for his social argument, one I can better judge.

To literally fuel economic growth, access to inexpensive energy sources is indispensable. Nowadays, that means coal. For India and China, coal is a lifeblood, a means to transform their economies from peasant-agrarian to middle class/knowledge economy. Dyson sees this transformation as noble, a huge win for humanity. Of course coal as fuel is anathema to global warming advocates. It's the social agenda that drives the views about science, at least in the sense that morality moves our sensibilities, not the other way around. And on social agenda, Dyson is pure American Dream, but that we have no monopoly on that and the best we can hope for is that it spreads through the rest of the world.

Dyson is not for coal forever. He is for coal now, until other technologies (solar especially) catch up from an economic point of view. Let the already rich countries lead on alternative energy technologies. However, don't let them be paternalistic about coal. It's not the type of argument you hear every day. It doesn't sound loony tunes to me.

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It seems that old NY Times Columnists don't just fade away. They become reviewers for the New York Review of Books. I really liked this Anthony Lewis piece, Shall We Get Rid of Lawyers? Lewis doesn't have much respect for the author of the book Lewis reviews, Philip Howard, but that seems because of Howard's poor journalism, he takes things as true with only a very limited set of sources and doesn't verify the information they provided, rather than because of Howard's Conservative disposition. Lewis, who had the reputation of being an outspoken Liberal, defies the current stereotype. (We seem to become those we make fun of. My wife has taken to watching MSNBC since Obama has become president and for me they are not much different from Fox News - though I've not watched the latter - Keith Oberman in particular wants to rush to judgment rather than help us understand what is going on.) He sees litigation for social causes as a balancing act, with excesses in both directions, and no quick fixes. His comments about the selection of judges, in particular, are telling. And his quoting Richard Posner, shows he derives his center of gravity from the quality of the argument, not from where the argument fits on the left-right spectrum.

I wish he were still writing for the NY Times because his voice is so true.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

In memory of Helen

Everything seems backwards now. And it's not just the economy. Used to be

Ah gits weary
An' sick of tryin'
Ah'm tired of livin'
An' skeered of dyin',
But ol' man river,
He jes'keeps rolling' along.

Now death is the reward. Thankfully, the struggle is over, the end of pain for the matriarch and of anxious times for the children. We compare the well being of societies by their life expectancy. I wonder why.

Helen had her 90th birthday just a month ago. Most of us were here in Des Moines then. The real benefit of this marathon that had not yet come to an end is that the siblings, my wife one of those, and their spouses and offspring and for the adult offspring their offspring as well, all would gather for a meal in celebration, suspending the ordinary pace of life in the name of family.

But all was not joy at the birthday party. Alzheimers would not allow it. Helen, with grace and determination, kept up her charms in her joking way of interaction, though she couldn't remember who you were. And she was so anemic and frail. The kids worried about that. And they worried that she was beginning to outlive her estate. Who plans to be a nonagenerian?

Things also seem backwards in that we're scared of living. I relearned an old lesson on this trip. Technology can frighten us, especially those of us who seem otherwise to have life in their hip pocket. One of my brother-in-laws got a Kindle about a week ago. He hadn't yet started to use it. He quizzed me about what I did with it.

We who take technology for granted need to remember that not everyone else does and that anything unfamiliar can intimidate anyone, even the bravest. We must encourage those we support to overcome their apprehension. The obstacles with new technology are molehills, not mountains. Using the technology well is a way to live life to its fullest, a value we all can embrace. Thank you, Helen, for reminding us of that.