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2014 Abel Prize

March 26, 2014 Leave a comment

yakovsinai

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters this morning announced the recipient of its 2014 Abel Prize, the twelfth one awarded. With mathematicians so rarely in the news, I have made it a point here at Ron’s View each year to write a post about the award. (Click on the following links for 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.) This year’s recipient is Yakov G. Sinai, a professor of mathematics at Princeton University and researcher at the Landau Institute of Theoretical Physics outside Moscow.

As I explain each year, the Abel Prize was established in 2001 by the Norwegian government to be the counterpart in mathematics to the Nobel Prizes in other disciplines. It has been awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters each year since 2003 to one or two outstanding mathematicians and honors the great, early-nineteenth-century Norwegian mathematician Niels Abel.

Regarding Sinai, here is a passage from the press release:

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has decided to award the Abel Prize for 2014 to Yakov G. Sinai (78) of Princeton University, USA, and the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics, Russian Academy of Sciences, “for his fundamental contributions to dynamical systems, ergodic theory, and mathematical physics”.

[snip]

Yakov Sinai is one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century. He has achieved numerous groundbreaking results in the theory of dynamical systems, in mathematical physics and in probability theory. Many mathematical results are
named after him … .

Sinai is highly respected in both physics and mathematics communities as the major architect of the most bridges connecting the world of deterministic (dynamical) systems with the world of probabilistic (stochastic) systems. During the past half-century Yakov Sinai has written more than 250 research papers and a number of books. He has supervised more than 50 Ph.D.-students.

Yakov Sinai has trained and influenced a generation of leading specialists in his research fields. Much of his research has become a standard toolbox for mathematical physicists. The Abel Committee says, “His works had and continue to have a broad and profound impact on mathematics and physics, as well as on the ever-fruitful interaction between these two fields.”

The Abel Prize website has a brochure on this year’s prize that is a bit more informative about Sinai’s work and career. Here are the first two paragraphs of an expanded description of his work.

Ever since the time of Newton, differential equations have been used by mathematicians, scientists and engineers to explain natural phenomena and to predict how they evolve. Many equations incorporate stochastic terms to model unknown, seemingly random, factors acting upon that evolution. The range of modern applications of deterministic and stochastic evolution equations encompasses such diverse issues as planetary motion, ocean currents, physiological cycles, population dynamics, and electrical networks, to name just a few. Some of these phenomena can be foreseen with great accuracy, while others seem to evolve in a chaotic, unpredictable way. Now it has become clear that order and chaos are intimately connected: we may find chaotic behavior in deterministic systems, and conversely, the statistical analysis of chaotic systems may lead to definite predictions.

Yakov Sinai made fundamental contributions in this broad domain, discovering surprising connections between order and chaos and developing the use of probability and measure theory in the study of dynamical systems. His achievements include seminal works in ergodic theory, which studies the tendency of a system to explore all of its available states according to certain time statistics; and statistical mechanics, which explores the behavior of systems composed of a very large number of particles, such as molecules in a gas.

See also the short article by Arne Sletsjøe (Norwegian mathematician and former Olympic sprint canoer) at the end of the brochure in which he explains what dynamical systems and entropy are, leading to a glimpse into Sinai’s contributions. I’ll close with an excerpt.

A dynamical system is a description of a physical system and its evolution over time. The system has many phases and all phases are represented in the phase space of the system. A path in the phase space describes the dynamics of the dynamical system.

A dynamical system may be deterministic. In a deterministic system no randomness is involved in the development of future states of the system. A swinging pendulum describes a deterministic system. Fixing the position and the speed, the laws of physics will determine the motion of the pendulum. When throwing a dice, we have the other extreme; a stochastic system. The future is completely uncertain, the last toss of the dice has no influence on the next.

In general, we can get a good overview of what happens in a dynamical system in the short term. However, when analyzed in the long term, dynamical systems are difficult to understand and predict. The problem of weather forecasting illustrates this phenomenon; the weather condition, described by air pressure, temperature, wind, humidity, etc. is a phase of a dynamical system. A weather forecast for the next ten minutes is much more reliable than a weather forecast for the next ten days.

Yakov Sinai was the first to come up with a mathematical foundation for quantifying
the complexity of a given dynamical system. Inspired by Shannon’s entropy in information theory, and in the framework of Kolmogorov’s Moscow seminar, Sinai introduced the concept of entropy for so-called measure-preserving dynamical systems, today known as Kolmogorov–Sinai-entropy. This entropy turned out to be a strong and far-reaching invariant of dynamical systems.

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Categories: Math

Too Late

March 24, 2014 Leave a comment
Bob Feller throwing a no-hitter on opening day, 1940, at age 21.

Bob Feller throwing no-hitter on opening day, 1940, at age 21.

[From Sports Illustrated]

Joe Posnanski has been running a series of posts on the 100 Greatest Baseball Players Ever. I gather this will turn into a book. The posts were coming pretty quickly a couple of months ago, but then he went to Sochi to cover the Winter Olympics and things slowed down, which has been fine with me. The post-every-few-days pace allows me to enjoy each new entry a little more.

Today we learned Posnanski’s choice for number 48, Bob Feller. Posnanski attempts to explain just how extraordinary a pitcher Feller was from the moment he arrived in the big leagues at the age of 17 in 1936 through the 1946 and 1947 seasons, despite missing all of the 1942-1944 seasons and most of 1945 while serving in World War II. We can safely assume that Feller’s rare level of dominance would have continued right through the war years. (See Feller’s stats here.)

One accomplishment that Posnanski highlighted caught my fancy. Before describing it, I’ll take a detour into golf.

You are perhaps familiar with the golfing notion of shooting your age. The par score for an 18-hole golf course is typically 70 or 71 or 72. Top golfers will routinely score in the 60s. On a handful of occasions, players have shot 59s in tournament play. (A list of occasions when men have done it is here.)

The best players, when in their 30s or 40s, are never going to shoot a score equal to or lower than their age. However—and this is one of the benefits of aging—once you hit your 60s you can begin to think about “shooting your age.” It’s not that unusual a feat, at least for the golfing elite.

I haven’t played a round of golf in years, but even if I had, I’m too young to be shooting my age. In a few years, who knows? I could take up the game again and at least dream of shooting my age.

Oh, I just found an article from a few years ago by the WSJ golf writer, John Paul Newport on “The Wonders of Shooting Your Age.” Doing so is more common than I realized:

Phil Schlosser has always been a determined fellow. As the founder and owner of a forging company in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., his happiest moments came in defying competitors who whispered that he’d taken on a job his facilities couldn’t handle. “Every fiber in my body started to vibrate,” the strapping 84-year-old told me recently at his golf-course home in an elite Palm Springs-area community called The Reserve. “And I thought, ‘I’ll figure out how to do her.’ ” Usually he did.

So it’s not surprising that 11 years ago, when he was paired at his golf club in Bend, Ore., with two major-league baseball players who almost totally ignored him, he grew miffed and took action. Despite having scored less than 80 only three or four times in his life, he rolled in an eight-foot birdie putt on the final hole for a 73. “How’s that for an old man!” he told the players, whom he prefers not to name.

It was the first time he shot his age or better — and it was on the number. Since then, including Friday’s round of 81, Mr. Schlosser has shot his age an additional 381 times. That’s far from a record: A Minnesotan named T. Edison Smith, a retired physical-education professor, has shot his age or better nearly 2,700 times. Ed Ervasti, a member at Turtle Creek in Tequesta, Fla., and other clubs, last year at age 93 shot 72 on a course measuring more than 6,000 yards.

I shouldn’t just dream. I should do it.

Back to baseball, and the notion I was previously unfamiliar with of “striking out your age,” which Posnanski describes in writing about Feller.

He made his Major League debut two weeks later by pitching one shaky inning against Washington. He made his first big league start about month later, August 23, against the St. Louis Browns. He struck out 15. That’s when the papers really went crazy. To sum up the coverage in one sentence: This lad, who learned to throw by pegging at a makeshift backstop in his father’s cow pasture, this boy wonder not long out of short pants, this high school boy has a future brighter than the sun.

Less than a month after that, Feller had his most remarkable day of that remarkable year. With his father in the stands, he struck out 17 Philadelphia Athletics — an American League record. The United Press account probably described it best: “A fastball, a mystifying curve and a flare of wildness that made the Philadelphia athletics step back from the plate made 17-year-old Bob Feller today the amazed possessor of a New American League record of 17 strikeouts.”

That’s 17 strikeouts in one game at the age of 17!

Posnanski continues:

Feller is one of only two players, by the way, to strike out his age. He struck out 17 at 17. Chicago’s Kerry Wood, more than 60 years later, struck out 20 at 20.

I missed Feller’s feat but remember Wood’s. What I don’t remember is anyone making the connection to striking out one’s age.

Alas, doing so has an age upper bound. You’re not going to do it once you turn 28. Too late.

Oh, I know. It’s possible to strike out more than 27 players in a game. A batter strikes out, the ball gets away from the catcher, the batter runs to first and arrives safely. It counts as a strikeout, but not an out. (Here’s a list of the occasions when a pitcher struck out 4 in an inning. It was done just last October.) If enough players strike out but get on base, you can have unlimited strikeouts. But basically 27 is the natural limit. Or let’s say 36 to be safe, nine consecutive four-strikeout innings.

This is one rare feat, for sure. And one I can’t dream of doing. Even if I somehow defy the laws of aging and become a professional pitcher at my age, it’s too late for me to strike out my age.

No baseball when I retire. I’ll focus on golf.

Categories: Baseball, Golf, Life

Local 360: Feeling Old

March 23, 2014 Leave a comment

local360

The northeast Seattle neighborhood where we once lived is home to the Wedgwood Broiler, a modest steakhouse that I still love to return to, if for no other reason than that there’s still a good chance, even twenty years after we moved away, that we’ll be the youngest people in the dining room. Indeed, we were there for dinner just a month ago and I didn’t notice anyone younger.*

Now we know where to go when we want the opposite experience. Our friends Tom and Carol are in from Edinburgh as houseguests, and two nights ago they were discussing with Gail and Joel (I was out) where we might go for dinner last night. Joel suggested Local 360, which despite taking over the old Flying Fish location in Belltown a few years ago, just a few blocks south of Jessica’s condo, was news to Gail and me. After reading up on the place and studying the menu, we decided to reserve.

From the homepage, one learns that they

believe in real food, grown and harvested by the good folks in our community who take care of their land for future generations. We believe in whole, natural flavors. We believe in sustainability, not as an abstract concept, but as a conscious daily choice. We believe in hands; the hands of our local farmers, products made by hand, and the goodwill fostered by such hand-in-hand relationships.

As for “360”, which makes me think of angle measure, not distance, it turns out to be the radius of the circle from which they aim to source their food.

From arugula to zucchini, our goal is to source everything we use from within a 360 mile radius of Seattle. At times, this will not be possible — in spite of its popularity, coffee still does not grow in the great Pacific Northwest, and we have yet to find a sugarcane field in our neck of the woods.

We had a surprisingly arduous journey downtown, and parking in Belltown is never straightforward, all of which served to remind me why we rarely go down there to eat. But we made it just five minutes late, and squeezed into the entry area, which was filled with people hoping to get tables despite no reservations. Two parties were told the wait was well over an hour, they left, we checked in, and were led to a booth near the back. There’s an open kitchen straight back, and a stairway near our table that leads to a balcony with more seating. It’s an efficient layout, with a string of booths tucked in under the balcony.

You can see the menu here. We shared some starters and small plates: the Grand Central baguette with whipped butter and sea salt (one has to order this if one wants bread), the deviled eggs, and the “Tender greens, farmer’s veggies, green goddess.” For entrees, Gail and Tom both chose the Chef’s Cut of the Night, which was fresh halibut with a salsa verde. Carol went for the Butcher’s grind house burger, with the “add cheese & bacon” option, and I chose steak frites with red wine butter sauce and aioli.

I couldn’t have been happier. The steak was better quality than I expected (at the given price) and the fries were excellent. Tom enjoyed his fish, but Gail thought hers a bit dry, and Carol found the burger overwhelming. A little too much to manage, with a bun that got soggy.

As I was finishing my steak, I realized that everyone I had seen—customers, cooks, and servers alike—seemed to be less than half my age. The people crowding the entry area at the beginning were more like a third my age. I could see two adults who might have been forty. Everyone else was under thirty. Tom pointed out that there was a bald guy at the bar, but when I took a closer look on our departure, I thought the baldness might have been a style choice, not an age indicator.

Go figure. Nothing about the menu or the restaurant philosophy suggests that it caters to a younger crowd. Time of day? Day of the week? I don’t know. It’s enough to send me back to Wedgwood, where the parking is easier and the staff has been there for decades.

But on to dessert. I chose the intriguing PB&J Bon Bons, Milk Shooter. It turned out to be three peanut butter balls breaded and heated, then placed on top of little jam circles. Bite into each ball and hot liquidy peanut butter pours out. Getting the jam to stick to the ball rather than the plate was a little tricky. I had to scoop it up with my spoon and try to get it all to mix in my mouth. Gail had the apple fritters with vanilla ice cream and bacon brittle. I took a small bite of a fritter, thought it good, but Gail didn’t seem so happy. Carol ordered a scoop of Olympic Mountain blueberry ice cream, served with two small snicker doodles. She pointed out to our server that the cookies were burnt on the bottom, to which the server responded by apologizing and, a few minutes later, bringing out two unburnt ones. I’ve never seen burning as an impediment to cookie eating, so I swooped in and ate the originals.

That was that. Age issues aside, I quite liked my meal. Gail, less so.

*The wedgwoodbroiler.com link that google directs me to doesn’t work at the moment, so either the site is temporarily down or gone altogether. Hence, I can’t direct you there for background reading. You might look here, where Mike Seely describes the Broiler as “the quintessential suburban American restaurant of the 1970s. Only it’s located within Seattle’s city limits, and it’s not the ’70s anymore.

Categories: Life, Restaurants

Ten Thousand Men

March 21, 2014 2 comments

I don’t get too excited about March Madness. When it comes to all things basketball, I lost the thrill decades ago. Once basketball was the sport I followed most closely, first as a devoted Knicks fan, then a Celtics fan who spent many a winter evening at the Garden.

As for college basketball, I trace my loss of interest to the double-overtime UCLA-NC State semifinal in 1974. I see here that Bill Walton called it “one of the bleakest days in the history of Western Civilization.” What a game! No point watching anymore.

Until yesterday. I keep up with who wins and who loses. I just don’t go out of my way to watch. Yesterday, however, I was at home later than usual and I saw online that Harvard was leading Cincinnati with three minutes to go. I figured I may as well tune in for the ending.

I have a bit of history with Harvard basketball. The best recruiting class in many years arrived in 1969, led by heavily recruited James Brown, out of high school powerhouse DeMatha in suburban DC (and later noted TV personality).

Freshmen didn’t play varsity ball in those years. Once that class became sophomores, I attended their games regularly. That season featured a trip west to Amherst to play UMass, led by the best player in the country, Julius Erving. I remember listening to the game on the radio, looking forward to UMass’s complementary visit to Cambridge a year later. But Erving didn’t stick around. He was a star in the ABA by then.

Harvard never did reach its potential in those years, to my great disappointment. Now they have, under coach Tommy Amaker. Despite being a #12 seed in the region, they were widely picked to upset #5 seed Cincinnati yesterday. Hence, I tuned in to catch the last two minutes.

Sure enough, Harvard held on to win. (Story here.) It was fun to see, though I felt bad for Cincinnati, which had dreams of going far. Harvard certainly won’t, not with Michigan State looming. Though only a #4 seed, the Spartans have been playing like one of the top five teams in the country lately. I don’t expect Harvard to keep it close.

When the game ended, the Harvard band played the historic fight song, Ten Thousand Men of Harvard. You may recall some of the lyrics.

Ten thousand men of Harvard want vict’ry today,
For they know that o’er old Eli
Fair Harvard holds sway.
So then we’ll conquer old Eli’s men,
And when the game ends, we’ll sing again:
Ten thousand men of Harvard gained vict’ry today!

I can’t imagine when I last heard that on national TV. The best opportunity would have been in tournament games during the years of Harvard hockey greatness, but those are past. Now Harvard is the weakest of the four Boston-area hockey powers, not much of a rival even to Yale. Heck, Yale won the national championship last year. So much for holding sway over old Eli.

Well, at least I got this post up today, before Harvard’s March Madness ends.

Categories: Music, Sports

Hierarchy Established

March 20, 2014 Leave a comment

stoolcharleeruby

Ruby and Charlee moved in with us not quite eleven weeks ago. They now have run of the house, except when they start tearing into the living room furniture and Gail shuts them out. Charlee (with the black triangle to one side of her nose) has settled in pretty well, after a slow start. Maybe a little too well. She insists on sitting with us when we eat and trying to jump on the table, no matter how many times we put her down. Ruby (with the white region encircling her nose) still keeps her distance, although she’s much more comfortable than she was for the first month.

They do have each other. For the most part that’s a comfort. But Charlee does move Ruby out of choice spots every so often, and when they play chase, Ruby assumes the role of chasee to Charlee’s chaser. There’s no uncertainty about who’s in charge.

Which they couldn’t have made more clear in assuming the pose above this afternoon. Hang in there Ruby.

Categories: Cats

Time to Look Back?

March 16, 2014 Leave a comment

difeinstein
[AP]

I’ve been quiet for months on a range of political issues that used to occupy a fair bit of space on Ron’s View. largely because I’ve run out of things to say that aren’t said better by many others. But today I’m going to devote a post to quoting one of my betters, in the context of Dianne Feinstein waking up to CIA abuse in its years-long coverup of torture.

Here are Mark Mazzetti and Jonathan Weisman, reporting last Tuesday in the NYT:

A festering conflict between the Central Intelligence Agency and its congressional overseers broke into the open Tuesday when Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee and one of the C.I.A.’s staunchest defenders, delivered an extraordinary denunciation of the agency, accusing it of withholding information about its treatment of prisoners and trying to intimidate committee staff members investigating the detention program.

In a New York Review of Books post yesterday, David Cole urges us not to lose sight of the more important story, the torture itself.

The old Washington adage that the cover-up is worse than the crime may not apply when it comes to the revelations this week that the Central Intelligence Agency interfered with a Senate torture investigation. It’s not that the cover-up isn’t serious. It is extremely serious—as Senator Dianne Feinstein said, the CIA may have violated the separation of powers, the Fourth Amendment, and a prohibition on spying inside the United States. It’s just that in this case, the underlying crimes are still worse: the dispute arises because the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Feinstein chairs, has written an as-yet-secret 6,300 page report on the CIA’s use of torture and disappearance—among the gravest crimes the world recognizes—against al-Qaeda suspects in the “war on terror.”

[snip]

But the crime that we must never lose sight of is the conduct that led to the investigation in the first place. To recall: in 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration authorized the CIA to establish a series of secret prisons, or “black sites,” into which it disappeared “high-value” al-Qaeda suspects, often for years at a time, without any public acknowledgment, without charges, and cut off from any access to the outside world. The CIA was further authorized to use a range of coercive tactics—borrowed from those used by the Chinese to torture American soldiers during the Korean War—to try to break the suspects’ will. These included depriving suspects of sleep for up to ten days, slamming them against walls, forcing them into painful stress positions, and waterboarding them.

The program was approved by President Bush himself, as well as Vice-President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and CIA Director George Tenet. John Yoo and Jay Bybee, Justice Department lawyers, wrote memos to whitewash the program. These acts were war crimes under the laws of war and grave human rights abuses. Yet no one has yet been held accountable for any of them.

[snip]

As I have argued before, accountability comes in many forms; there is little likelihood that former officials will be criminally prosecuted, even after the report is issued. But an official report can itself be a form of reckoning. … A secret report, however, is no accountability at all. In an encouraging sign, President Obama on Wednesday said that he favors making the report public so that the American people can judge for themselves the CIA’s conduct. You can bet the CIA will fight tooth and nail to frustrate that pledge. We must insist that President Obama keep this promise.

In law, we say that torture “taints” an investigation. The legal doctrine that precludes reliance on evidence obtained from torture is called the “fruit of the poisonous tree” rule. But as this latest saga reflects, torture does far more than merely “taint” evidence. It corrupts all who touch it. The CIA’s desperate efforts to hide the details of what the world already knows in general outline—that it subjected human beings to brutal treatment to which no human being should ever be subjected—are only the latest evidence of the poisonous consequences of a program euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation.”

Obama has been the national leader in allowing his predecessor and colleagues to duck accountability. (Recall that in January 2011, shortly before his inauguration, Obama stated his “belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”) Let us hope that he does insist on release of the report at long last.

Categories: Politics, Torture

The Good Life Gets Better

March 16, 2014 Leave a comment

cadburykitkat

Last April, in my post The Good Life: Cadbury Fingers, I wrote about the arrival from Edinburgh of our friends Tom and Carol with four boxes of Cadbury Fingers. Let me quote again from the Cadbury website.

This little biscuit is a national treasure and with its delicious combination of milk chocolate and crunchy biscuit, along with its compact size, it’s the perfect treat for the whole family. But be warned, one is never enough!

Two nights ago, on the occasion of her latest visit, Carol outdid herself. Yes, seven boxes this time, plus packs of KitKat bars, the British version being far superior to our local variety.

And it’s still true, one is never enough. Thank you, Carol.

Categories: Food, Travel