Australian wins Fields Medal

23 August, 2006

It deserves mention that an Australian, Terence Tao has won the Fields Medal for mathematics becoming the first Australian to win the prize. Up to four Fields Medals are handed out once every four years, and it is the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

AT THE age of two, Terence Tao could already add up and subtract using the magnetic numbers his parents stuck on the fridge.

At eight, he scored better than 99 per cent of 17-year-old prospective university students on an international aptitude test for mathematics.

The Adelaide-born prodigy was appointed a professor at 24, and now, at 31, has become the first Australian to win a Fields Medal, the mathematics equivalent of a Nobel prize.

The award was presented in Madrid yesterday by Spain’s King Juan Carlos I at a congress attended by 4000 international mathematicians.

Its a bit difficult to work out what exactly he won it for as the Medal is not awarded for specific pieces of work. His website states a fairly broad area of mathematical interest, although it is suggested here that:

It is awarded for a body of work rather than a single achievement but Professor Tao is most recently celebrated for showing, with Ben Green of Cambridge, that there are long strings of prime numbers a constant distance apart, work that is important for the coding of information such as banking details.

Well done Terence.
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Hair affair

23 August, 2006

Was Darrell Hair’s first decision to penalise Pakistan for ball tampering right? I don’t know. Was he and his co-umpire right to call the game off when Pakistan refused to come out and play? Yes, they were absolutely correct.

Anyone who has played any sport knows that the umpire’s decision is final. You can appeal the decision later through appropriate channels if its so grossly unreasonable but if, even once, umpires start letting themselves be pushed around during the game by player protests then players will always protest. If this had been allowed to occur Pakistan would potentially be able to refuse to play every time a dodgy LBW decision is given. A bad LBW decision being a worse penalty than 5 runs in terms of the game outcome.

Cricinfo described it like this

After waiting in the middle of the pitch for twenty minutes, the umpires went to the Pakistan dressing-room to ask whether or not Inzamam-ul-Haq would lead out his team or not before they went out, took the bails off and left, thus awarding the Test to England.

Bob Woolmer told Cricinfo that after Pakistan refused to come out after the tea break, both umpires, after waiting on the field, went to the Pakistan dressing room to ask whether or not they would continue to play. Inzamam countered by asking the umpires why they had changed the ball, which led to the Pakistan team protesting.

“We are not here to answer that question,” Hair was reported to have said, and when Inzamam didn’t provide any reply to their initial query, they walked back out again. By the time Pakistan were eventually led out onto the field by Inzamam, the umpires had already walked on, knocked the bails off and gone back inside, refusing to come out again.

The umpires came onto the field and waited for twenty minutes then came back in and asked them to come out. To give any more chances would be to cave into the Pakistan’s petulance, and at that point would have brought the whole authority of the umpires into question. You can blame Hair perhaps for a bad ball tampering decision, but the forfeiture of the game was wholly Pakistan’s fault.

Fooled by Randomness

22 August, 2006

I’ve just finished reading Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2nd edition). Its a good book which makes some great points, but also has plenty of stuff that is annoying in it. The style as he describes it is not mathematical but literary-philosophical, which I don’t have issue with but I did find the author’s sneering and arrogance sometimes a little overwhelming.

The book is structured as a series of essays about the nature of probability and randomness, and how people can deal with it. Taleb is a derivatives trader who worked on Wall Street for many years and now runs a hedge fund of his own. As the heading quote on his website states:

My major hobby is teasing people who take themselves & the quality of their knowledge too seriously & those who don’t have the guts to sometimes say: I don’t know….

and much of the book is just this, mocking all those who make predictions, well beyond their knowledge. Journalists and others who ascribe causal relationships to random outcomes also get considerable attention. He makes much of the way that survivor bias distorts our opinions on things. We look at someone who had been extraordinarily successful in some activity and assume it relates to skill without asking how many people who did something similar failed. Are they good and we have something to learn from them, or are they just the lucky 1-in-32 who got five heads in a row? Without knowing how many people started in the endeavour and whether the successes have survived longer than we would expect in a random environment is the only way of having some confidence.

More than anything else Taleb’s focus is on what he calls “Black Swans”, the rare occurrences that inductive reasoning will never tell you about. His points are coloured particularly by two experiences. Growing up in Lebanon in the early 80’s war and by his experience of highly successful traders who, after years of success, lost everything they had made and much more in less than one month including their jobs by the Russian default in 1998. In the aftermath many would claim that such an event was completely unusual and unexpected, Taleb argues that our past experience will never be a good guide to such things and we will always run into these outlier events.
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The Ethics of What We Eat – part II

20 August, 2006

In the first part of this I dicussed what I saw as shortcomings from an Australian perspective, here I’ll actually discuss the book.

The book itself it is divided into roughly three sections, the first being a typical American family, who on analysis eat food that mostly comes from “factory farms”. The second family are “conscientious omnivores”, they are more discriminating the father is vegetarian and the meat that is bought is mostly free range. They also purchase on the basis on such concepts as buying locally, fair trade and organic food. The third family are vegan family, their main ethical concerns are about avoiding GM eating organic food and the question of whether it is ethical to raise children as vegans.

The attempt is made to trace where the food they purchase in each situation comes from, how that food is produced and what are the effects of producing it.
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The Ethics of What We Eat – Part I

15 August, 2006

I’ve just finished reading “The Ethics of What We Eat” by Peter Singer and Jim Mason (apparently called “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter” in the US). Not the sort of thing I usually read, but I was offered it by a vegetarian friend of mine who thought it would turn you off eating meat. I thought I might as well read it and, if the arguments really were that persuasive, well so be it (not likely but I would give it a go). Anyway what I have to say about it was getting long so I am cutting it into a few pieces so I actually get it out.

My wife commented that if someone sees you reading this book they’ll think you are a vegan (and possibly smelly), and I think she’s right. It’s a bit sad that people will assume that you read to confirm your beliefs rather than challenge them, but its probably what people mostly do. Certainly when I searched for reviews it seems that they are mostly done by people sympathetic to the general thrust of the arguments.

Over all I enjoyed the book, although I have numerous objections. In general I think the ethical logic is pretty well argued, its just I’m starting from some different precepts. I’ll come right out now and say it hasn’t convinced me to stop eating meat, but perhaps in one or two issues has swayed me a little into thinking about what food I should buy. In the end though I just plain disagree with the authors on the degree we should care about animal’s welfare. I value the suffering of the cow I eat my way through every 5-6 years less than my enjoyment of eating meat. Sounds a little heartless but I’ll elaborate later on.
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Long time no post

15 August, 2006

Rest assured anyone who is stopping by here I haven’t closed shop, just been busy and not completed any of the posts I have started writing. I will return soon.

Howard’s trump card?

8 August, 2006

It seems that the suggestion that people should take responsibility for their own impact on global warming has made Clive Hamilton chuck a wobbly and write rather a nasty op-ed.

The answer is that Flannery’s book does not make life harder for the Government, but sends the sort of message the Government wants us to hear.

Flannery is an advocate of individual consumer action as the answer to environmental problems. Instead of being understood as a set of problems endemic to our economic and social structures, we are told we each have to take personal responsibility for our contribution to every problem.

This is music to the Government’s ears. The assignment of individual responsibility is consistent with the economic rationalist view of the world, which wants everything left to the market, even when the market manifestly fails.

Yet it is at best a naive, and at worst a reckless, approach to the looming catastrophe of climate change. The world did not eliminate the production of ozone-depleting substances by relying on the good sense of consumers in buying CFC-free fridges. We insisted governments negotiate an international treaty that banned CFCs. We did not invite car buyers to pay more to install catalytic converters, the greatest factor in reducing urban air pollution. We called on government to legislate to require all car makers to include them.

The idea that individuals should take some responsibility and that we should consider nuclear power has annoyed Clive Hamilton. Apparently Tim Flannery has lost sight of the main game of opposing the government as opposed to actually fighting global warming. As such saying anything the government may like is wrong, even if it is true.
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