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Gathering For Gardner

April 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I wrote two days ago about buying an iPad, mentioning in passing that one of the apps I had downloaded for it was the WSJ app. Yesterday I explored how it works. It’s really good. What it does is download and keep on the iPad the last seven days of the paper. The next day — if you bring up the app the next day — it deletes the oldest of the seven days and downloads the current day. You select the day you want, choose the section of the paper you want, and then start reading. In one mode, all the articles of that section are listed in a column on the right. When you tap on one of the articles, it comes up, with the column still there on the right so that you can go straight to any other article you wish. To continue reading a multi-page article, or to go back a page, you do the standard horizontal swipe.

Of course, this isn’t free. I don’t know what it costs to subscribe anew. As a print/online subscriber, I get iPad access, for now, at no additional cost. Apparently the WSJ will soon charge print subscribers.

Anyway, since we were back in New York a week ago, we didn’t get last Friday’s paper. As I explored the iPad edition of the WSJ yesterday, I realized I could look at Friday’s missed paper with just a tap. So I did, heading straight to the Weekend Journal, where I happily discovered an article on Martin Gardner that I would otherwise have missed. It’s a rare day when any major newspaper has an article with mathematical content. I’m glad I found this one.

Though not himself a mathematician, Gardner is one of history’s great popularizers of mathematics, through his long-running “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American. He is as well one of the great debunkers of pseudo-science. The WSJ article describes the 9th annual conference in honor of Gardner, held two weeks ago in Atlanta. From the article:

. . . a four-day conference in honor of Martin Gardner, 95, a public intellectual whose most famous pulpit was “Mathematical Games,” written for Scientific American between 1956 and 1981. Mr. Gardner’s column illuminated the beauty of math and logic in discussions of fractals, origami, optical illusions, puzzles and pseudoscience. It challenged readers to discover how finely math and logic are interwoven through the world.

. . .

Puzzles are instructive, Mr. Gardner found, for they teach us to appreciate hidden structures of the world that are not owned by any particular discipline and are potentially useful to all. He saw the world as resembling not a magazine, where the subject of each section bears little relation to that of the next, but a well-written novel, where ideas introduced in one chapter are apt to reappear—transformed, modulated and extended—in others. He taught his readers to see the world in the same way, inculcating in them an openness and alertness to the often surprising possibilities of the world, and the desire to seek them out.

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Categories: Math, Newspapers, Technology

Confederate History Month

April 9, 2010 Leave a comment

You probably know that Virginia governor Bob McDonnell declared this to be Confederate History Month. The criticism he received that his initial proclamation omitted any reference to slavery led him to add a paragraph addressing the role of slavery in the Civil War and describing it as an “evil and inhumane practice.”

If you haven’t read the proclamation itself, I recommend that you have a look. You can find it here. There are seven “whereas” clauses outlining the basis for April’s designation as Confederate History Month. Here, as a sample, is the third:

Whereas, it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present;

Sacrifices of slaves, or free blacks, or those white Virginians who chose to fight for the Union are not recognized. I suppose that’s natural. It’s Confederate history we’re celebrating, after all. But still.

I like Ed Kilgore’s remembrance in The New Republic of “the final years of Jim Crow, when every month was Confederate History Month.” He goes on to suggest “a Neo-Confederate History Month that draws attention to the endless commemorations of the Lost Cause that have wrought nearly as much damage as the Confederacy itself. It would be immensely useful for Virginians and southerners generally to spend some time reflecting on the century or so of grinding poverty and cultural isolation that fidelity to the Romance in Gray earned for the entire region, regardless of race. Few Americans from any region know much about the actual history of Reconstruction, capped by the shameful consignment of African Americans to the tender mercies of their former masters, or about the systematic disenfranchisement of black citizens (and in some places, particularly McDonnell’s Virginia, of poor whites) that immediately followed.”

(See also Robert R. Mackey’s series of three posts at the Obsidian Wings blog: here, here, and here.)

Categories: Government, History, Politics

Coal Mine Safety

April 9, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s a continuing mystery to me why regulation of industry is so widely and casually disparaged. Then something happens like the collapse of the US banking industry, or a mine explosion, and there’s talk briefly of adding regulations or enforcing them more strictly, but soon it’s back to depicting regulations as yet one more evil government tool to take over free enterprise and steal our freedoms. Mind you, many of the people saying this don’t seem to mind at all when our government gets serious about stealing our freedoms, whether by reading our email without court approval or throwing us in jail without paying attention to habeas corpus.

And here we are, again, with this week’s mine explosion at Massey Energy Company‘s Upper Big Branch mine explosion in Montcoal, West Virginia. See this AP article from Wednesday for an account of Massey’s pattern of “frequently sidestep[ping] hefty fines by aggressively contesting safety violations, including recent problems with the ventilation system that clears away combustible methane gas.” As E.J. Dionne noted in The New Republic yesterday:

Companies just don’t like regulation, and Don L. Blankenship, the chief executive of Massey Energy Co., has a history of challenging the regulators in every way he can.

Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine has been cited for safety violations 1,342 times since 2005. Eighty-six of those citations involved failing to follow a mine ventilation plan to control methane and coal dust, 12 of them coming last month alone.

Not surprisingly, Blankenship views this as the cost of doing business. “Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process,” he said in a radio interview with West Virginia Metro News. “There are violations at every coal mine in America and UBB (Upper Big Branch) was a mine that had violations.” . . .

Only after disasters such as this one do we remember that regulations exist for a reason, that their enforcement can, literally, be a matter of life and death. We will eventually learn what went wrong at Upper Big Branch and whether the safety violations were part of the problem. But then what will we do?

As for banking regulation, the moment seems to have passed. I don’t see the Senate doing anything.

Categories: Government, Regulation