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Does mathematics carry human biases?

This week, a conversation flared up on Twitter on whether mathematics can carry human biases, and what such a possibility could even mean. The spark was a statement by the Committee on Minority Participation in Mathematics of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), responding to actions the Trump administration has taken to disparage and de-fund...

How do we mourn human civilization?

2019 was a lot of things. But for what I want to say here, 2019 was the year that I realized we might not save ourselves.Just on its face, 2019 was a terrible year if you care about climate change. Arctic permafrost may have reached a tipping point. Antarctic ice melted at record pace. The Amazon burned. Meanwhile, carbon emissions continued to rise,...

Andi's Factor Game

Two weeks ago, my friend Andi messaged me about a mathematical game she had invented.  She was so excited to share it.  She had coded up a "proof of concept" version in html, and had come up with a mathematical proof about its winning strategies.  She was enthusiastic about its potential to make math fun even for non-math people, and full of ideas for...

You can win the Electoral College with 22% of the vote

Donald Trump is poised to become the next US president, despite the fact that Hillary Clinton received over a million more votes than him (and counting). This would mark the second time in sixteen years, and either the fourth or fifth time in history (depending on how you count) that the Electoral College winner has lost the popular vote. How is it...

Information and Structure in Complex Systems

Eight years ago, I had finished my first year of graduate school in math, and I was at a loss as to what to research.  My original focus, differential geometry, was a beautiful subject to learn about, but the open research questions were too abstract and technical to sustain my interest.  I wanted something more relevant to the real world, something...

The time the cops pulled their guns on me

This post is not about science.I'm writing this because the horrific news out of Ferguson, Missouri—the killing of an unarmed man and the subsequent assault on the populace and media—has been bringing back memories an experience I had with the police ten years ago in Chicago.I should be clear about why I'm choosing to share this. It's not because I...

Brian Arthur's vision of Complexity Economics

My friend Daria Roithmayr alerted me to a working paper of Brian Arthur laying out a vision for a new approach to studying economics.  Brian Arthur is one of the pioneers of complex systems thought, and has devoted his life to understanding what really happens in our economy, and why this behavior is so different from what classical economics predicts.Classical...

How natural processes can create meaning

The project of science is largely about asking why things happen.  We seek causal explanations: Why do planets follow elliptical orbits? Why does water become solid in cold temperatures?Historically, this project has been largely reductionist in its approach.  That is, scientists have generally taken the view that phenomena can be explained in terms...

What's the deal with inclusive fitness theory?

You may not be aware of it, but there is a battle afoot in the theory of evolution.  The fight is over inclusive fitness theory—an approach to studying the evolution of cooperation.  I, together with mathematical biologist Martin Nowak and naturalist E. O. Wilson, just published an article pointing out weaknesses in the theory, and suggesting that it...

Inferring Social Security Numbers from Birth Data

An article in July's PNAS investigates the possibility of predicting a person's Social Security number from their birth date and place. Exploiting patterns in how SSN's are assigned, authors Alessandro Acquisti and Ralph Gross developed an algorithm which could correctly predict the first 5 digits of a social security number 44% of the time, for people...

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