Monday, April 20, 2015

Birth of a Theorem. Knife Fights. Intellectual Work and War Work.

Cedric Villani's Birth of a Theorem (Theoreme Vivante) is about what it means to do hard intellectual work. If you do not care about mathematics, but care about intellectual work, do take a look. There's lots of technical detail, but what is striking is the process of doing the work, the insights that cause him to rewrite it all, hangups that eventually are dealt with, working with a collaborator,...

John Nagl's Knife Fights is about war and counterinsurgency.  I find his chapter 8, an overview, to be thoughtful, balanced, fair, and interesting: about the role of the US, about what kinds of wars and military encounters are likely, and about the political world. Nonpartisan, not ideological, a nice read.  He was a Lt. Col in the Army, with lots of experience.

I find that descriptions of the world, whether they be of intellectual endeavors or of practical ones are best provided by actual practitioners who are both reflective and open to alternative positions. Theoretical and outsider perspectives are sometimes helpful, but often they need a healthy dose of actual frustrations and practices if they are not to be unhelpful.

The only way my own descriptions are justified is that I try them out on actual practitioners, and ask, Does this sound right? Often, the response is, So what?, in the sense that what I am saying is obvious to the practitioner. But, in general, it is not so obvious to others. It helps that I bring a wide range of models to the table, looking for analogies and perspectives: BUT, I could just be wrong, unless my work is tempered by experience (my own, or others). It's easy to teach mature practitioners, since if what I say makes sense to them, they get it. Nothing I say is "too theoretical," since if it makes sense they see it in actual terms. Teaching inexperienced students is much harder.

Sunday, April 12, 2015


    • AT FIRST I THOUGHT, I needed to introduce GOOGLE to ALL -not so techie- people in academia; Specially the "" option in GOOGLE search. BUT THEN, I realized something FISHY..PLEASE keep reading!!...I FIRST wondered WHY the author does NOT name his/her university while a simple Google-search of the QUOTATION (from school policy) presented IN THIS Article [using Google's "" option] RESULT in one-and-only-one Result: University of XY (UXY)!!!! [Please note I am not simply using Google-Search but I search only the .edu domains using the above mentioned google option] ..I am siting in the east coast, and no affiliation with UXY by the way...I just know my way around GOOGLE SEARCH and how "" option works! Then a light Bulb went on in my mind...[BTW, I am a professor of Business/Strategy] There are two scenarios: 1: The author did not realize he/she has put an AWFULLY clear HINT to his/her school in the Article and it was a Gaff (or as we call it Sooti  [A Persian slang; 
      If you "give a sooti" you are behaving or doing/saying something unusual involuntary. A funny mistake.
      The president gave a khafan [COOL] sooti! He was talking to the secretary while he thought that the microphones were off!]
    • ) ........... 2: The writer knows the ABCs of the technology and he/she, REALLY WANTED to BE CAUGHT!! She could NOT publish this paper in with the ACTUAL name of his/her School and INSTEAD she-or-he, played this TRICK on the Second Scenario is TRUE which seems to be more likely [unless the author is XY+ years old AND still uses a TYPE MACHINE!! and a Flip-Phone is still too complicated for Her/him]... then it means the Writer of this article HAS SOME PERSONAL BEEF with someone... If this is the case it would be VERY Unprofessional, unethical, and Insulting to and the READERS!!! The need to consider removing this article or editing the content... Read the paper again: there was no need to put the 'unique' (!) Quotation of the university policy there.... There should be some sort of consequence .... I feel Bad for the 2 UXY employees who have been victimized here. Their reputation and future has been affected. may be held responsible at some point!!... As a Biz Prof. I am telling you: there will be some liabilities and casualties here, if ANY one take an issue or picks on a fight over this!! P.S.: Instead of the Actual name of university, I put UXY, as I do not want to be held liable in a probable case here.,..Good Luck!

    Saturday, April 11, 2015

    On leave: a personal note. The Standard Model.

    I am on leave this semester, and for the first time I have no work due, no work planned, no ...  It has been remarkable for me, since I am self-starting. It took about two months to slow down, and of late I have been reading in quantum field theory, the Standard Model in particle physics, and partial differential equations. I have no good reason why. I did write up my work on uncertainty, early on, during that slow down period. But nothing else other than notes to myself.

    We'll see where it goes.

    In my reading I have been struck by the precision of modern work in high energy physics and particle physics. The Standard Model proves to be robust, the experimenters ingenious, the theorists capable of calculating just about everything. And agreement of calculation and experiment often is about three significant figures, an extraordinary achievement. The only more impressive numbers are Kinoshita's calculations in QED, where ten significant figures and thousands of Feynman diagrams are needed, and one needs as well knowledge of QCD effects (effects of heavier particles than electrons and photons, usually virtual).

    I recall when in the 70s the Standard Model became orthodoxy due to experimental discoveries. What was striking then, and is still striking, is how much modern theory is an ingenious but quite recognizable adaptation of Maxwell's 1870 equations for electricity and magnetism--quantized, quantum field-ized, and given more complicated symmetries.

    "Theorems are proved by those who believe them."

    I am told, There's a saying among mathematicians that 
    "theorems are proved by those who believe them."

    Namely, you have to pursue a program of work believing it will be productive. Those who do not think that path will be productive are unlikely to go down that path, and so they will not even get close to proving such theorems. In other words, our work demands a commitment from ourselves, since in general the payoff is unsure and typically it is well in the distance. I can imagine two archetype examples: Andrew Wiles working on the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture for perhaps six or seven years, and Yitang Zhang's work on the distance between consecutive primes. Wiles was a distinguished Princeton professor, where the risks for him would be that the work would not be enough to prove the Fermat Theorem. But along the way, he was making major advances in his field that would have been quite valuable--but not world shaking.  Zhang had a lectureship at U of New Hampshire, was in his mid-50s and no particular distinction. But he took what was known in the literature and gave it the power it needed. If it did not work out, I suppose he could have published something, but I am not sure it would have satisfied his desire to do spectacular work or earn him a better position.

    As for Zhang, see this article by Andrew Granville, A New Mathematical Celebrity .

    If the above link does not work, the link is

    Granville's interesting claim is that there is something distinctive about the mathematics community, since here is an article by an unknown claiming to have proved a major theorem and opening up a new method (the standard recipe for error and "crackpot")--yet it took only three weeks for the major mathematical journal to recognize it and accept it.

    As for Wiles, when he first presented his result, after being silent about the work for all those years, someone noted an error in the proof. It was clear the work was important and a major advance, but the big result had a hole in it. Over the next year, Wiles and his student Taylor repaired the hole. This often happens with major complex and lengthy work, and is not stigmatizing if you can repair the hole--you talk about the work to others so they will help you improve the work and find errors in it--that's their job!

    It is worth noting

    There has been a 2 1/2 month hiatus in this blog. I hope to get back to it soon.

    Thursday, January 29, 2015

    Dollars and Sense: Ed Kleinbard, We Are Better Than This

    In a new book, We Are Better Than This, Ed Kleinbard gives a detailed and accurate rendering of how we spend public monies and how we tax and borrow to obtain those monies. It is a profound lesson in civics, with politics and economy thrown in. He has his own preferred policies, but 90% or more of the book is a description of "the system." Most of us know bits and pieces, but the whole picture is presented here. The book is lengthy, but not too long. I know of nothing like it. For most of us in the professions, you need to know this material if you are to thrive in your careers. (Most of what we 'know' is somewhat partial and biased, I believe.) 

    Kleinbard was a leading partner of Cleary, Gottlieb, one of the major law firms ("white shoe"), in its tax practice. He then was the head of the Joint Commission on Taxation of the Congress, and now is on the faculty of USC in the Gould School of Law. In his legal practice at Cleary, he was one of the innovators in structured financial instruments, and is widely respected in the legal world. I think he is terrific as a colleague, deep and fun. He is comfortable in the world of practice, government, and scholarship. Quite rare.

    This interview on CSPAN does not convey the detailed and balanced character of the book and Kleinbard. But it is a beginning:

    Saturday, January 24, 2015

    Client-Focus: Where Professional Education Seems to Be Going

    In most professions, we see the following trends over the last 100 years in professional education once it gets into the universities:

    1. Practice
    2. Science and social science (with an attempt to avoid (1). You'll learn it later.
    3. Design and problem-based with some of (2)

    What next?

    4. Client-focused: What do they need? How could you and they know better what they need? (This may involve study outside the field.)

    Useful Reference Books for Those Who Write

    If you plan to have a career as a scholar, likely you will be writing a good deal. The basics might be

    American Heritage Dictionary, about $40 from amazon--less permissive than most. (Garner likes this one.)
    Chicago Manual of Style, about $40, if you ever plan to publish.
    Garner's Modern American Usage, about $26, for a very large and detailed guide to usage. 

    Monday, January 19, 2015

    Albert Wohlstetter on social science, referring to Poincare on sociology.

    I also had an uncomfortable suspicion that the devastating remark of the great French mathematician, Henri PoincarĂ©, about sociology ("The most methods, and the least results") might only too accurately describe the way one might dally in the approach to any social science in order to avoid actually going in and getting lost in a very dense jungle. Maps, brochures, the purchase of compasses, machetes, bush jackets and rakish tropical helmets can be used as a substitute for a hot and sweaty journey. In short, I sympathize with Johan Galtung's misgivings about theories about theory in a theory-poor field. (And with the feeling expressed by Burton Marshall since I first wrote these lines: reading the behaviorist literature in international relations seems a bit like sitting through an overture that never ends.[1] But I find that traditionalist critiques of behavioral essays on methodology, with rare exceptions like Marshall's own laconic contributions, have their own longeurs.)

    Monday, January 12, 2015

    Engineering as Actually Practiced

    1.       Actual engineering is done for a client—hence economics, politics, etc are essential. That engineering is value laden is surely not restricted to client concerns, but it is a good start.
    2.       “Engineering Science” allows one to teach courses with no actual engineering. (“You’ll get to the good stuff next year.”) Bad idea?
    3.       Design and team work are crucial. Very few professions or jobs allow just for individual work, and engineering is fundamentally team or group. It should feel that way from the beginning.
    4.       Is it possible for someone who happens to have a BA, in anything, to take a few math and science fundamental courses, and then get a MS in, say, electrical engineering. I assume most masters students nowadays already have an undergraduate engineering degree.
    6.       Just what kinds of mathematics are needed for undergraduate engineering education? Some calculus, plus the usual high school studies. More?  Maybe computer algorithms. Maybe some logic. I imagine that one might teach all this in a one semester course—practical and outrageous.
    7.       I believe that economics and history might be core here. The economics says something about why and how given resource constraints, the history about why what you see now is what it is. Also, it demythologizes the stories people are told.

    8.       I would not push people to read the Federalist Papers, for example. Unless it was attached to particular engineering issues… It should not be hard to have a liberal arts set of subjects that are always attached to engineering, and since engineering has developed historically the reverse is also true. But the trick is not to present it as enhancement. Rather what we call liberal arts is just what is needed to understand engineering as a practice.