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Posts from — May 2008

Paul Sally.

The recent issue of the alumni magazine from my undergraduate alma mater, The University of Chicago, includes a profile of mathematician Paul Sally, who taught the Honors Analysis in Rn sequence I took in my second year. 

Despite the rigorously intellectual image of itself that the University promotes, the alumni magazine is usually as circumspect as an in-flight magazine. Of course the primary purpose of the magazine is to cultivate us as donors, so on-campus controversy, intellectual or otherwise, gets scant attention. The article on Sally certainly follows the magazine’s formula of uncritical boosterism, but I still found it a delight to read: it took me back to what was probably the most intellectually fulfilling experience of my academic career, a time when all the promotional slogans about the life of the mind were very real for me.

Although my enthusiasm for working in a lab led me to choose physics over mathematics, I still have a fondness for pure mathematics. I retain a handful of habits  that are more a part of math culture than physics culture.1 Sally’s course kept me on the fence between the two disciplines.

Sally delivered his classes entirely without notes, and the course rarely made reference to the assigned book (a cheap Dover reprint and a small volume from Spivak). He led a “discussion session,” Tuesday evenings from 6:30 until 8 or 9, stretching the amount of class time. He told us he expected at least 25 hours per week from us, at one point advising us to make posters which read “Mathematics… is a full time job.” It was mathematics by immersion.

Not every teacher can pull this off so successfully: it’s easy enough to assign lots and lots of work, but the combination of a heavy workload and an uninspiring instructor usually results in lots of incomplete assignments. 

Sally once remarked that, as you continue in mathematics, you get to a point where hard work is not only necessary, but also sufficient, to prove theorems and make progress. He was getting us to develop the sort of attitude and work ethic to reach that point.

There are many things I learned in college that I’ve now forgotten, many problems I can no longer solve. I don’t know how much review it would take for me to be able to solve the problems from Honors Analysis again, but, 15 years on, I feel I still have a well-developed understanding of the structure of the real numbers. 

Here’s another article about Sally, for winning a teaching award.

  1. In particular, I can’t stand the common-in-physics habit of using the word “finite” when what is really meant is “non-zero” or “infinitesimal.” []

May 29, 2008   No Comments

Bittman on industrial food

Mark Bittman–New York Times food columnist and author of How to Cook Everything, a splendid cookbook with International and Vegetarian volumes, has been speaking and writing about many of the same food issues that Michael Pollan writes about. 

Bittman’s talk from the TED (=Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference is now online. In 18 minutes–the length of all TED talks–he examines the ways in which the industrialization of food, particularly livestock, has been a disaster for the environment and our health. Also see his January New York Times article, which discusses the same ideas.

(via 3 quarks daily.)

May 28, 2008   No Comments

Hear the hoofbeats

One horseman of the apocalypse is global warming, another is peak oil, and the hoofbeats of each are now loud enough that we can’t really pretend we don’t hear anything. The story of global warming is fairly well known, thanks in large part to Al Gore. The story of peak oil, on the other hand, although gaining in prominence, is largely overlooked, even as crude oil pushes past $130/barrel and gasoline tops $4/gallon. Perhaps this is because Americans can imagine living in a world in which the global warming catastrophe has happened (hey, just turn the AC up!) but can’t imagine a world in which we can’t each consume more than a gallon a day of gasoline.

A succinct summary of the peak oil story has been (re-)posted at The Oil Drum, which is perhaps the leading site for oil news and peak oil discussion.

May 24, 2008   No Comments

50 simple things to save the Earth

Two interviews of note on the Sierra Club Radio episode from May 3: Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, discusses his recent book Supercapitalism, and John Javna, author of the original 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, talks about the newly updated version of the book.


The interview with Javna is refreshingly candid. The original book came about as environmental issues were making news in the early 1990s, and Javna saw a need to outline steps that individuals could take to make a difference. The book was intended, Javna says, to be an entry point to environmental activism. Although many–including Sierra Club radio host Orli Cotel–took it this way, a far more sinister thing also happened: corporate polluters were able to latch on to the idea of individuals taking action and transformed that into the idea that individual lifestyle changes were the only steps that needed to be taken. If there are 50 simple things you can do to save the Earth, then saving the Earth means doing the 50 simple things, and not, say, addressing mountaintop removal or clearcutting or pesticide runoff or any number of other issues for which the solutions are beyond the 50 simple things. The message was that our major environmental problems were the fault of individuals, or at least the fault of those individuals who hadn’t done the 50 simple things to save the Earth, and not the fault of the large corporate polluters.

As one might imagine, Javna was quite dismayed to see the rise of the notion, which he acknowledges he had unwittingly abetted, that doing the simple things outlined in his book was somehow equivalent to solving our most pressing environmental problems. He knew full well that many of the steps–for example snipping the rings of a six-pack holder–were largely gestures that were more about raising consciousness than solving problems. And so his cynicism took over; he stepped away from environmental activism, moved away, and focused on raising his family.

The spark for the new edition came when his daughter asked why they didn’t compost anymore1 and after a bit of introspection came to realize that individual actions were, in fact, a crucial part of environmentalism. But the task wasn’t to disseminate random eco-tips, but rather to foster a shift towards a culture of sustainability. Instead of tips, the new edition of the book is organized around 50 issues (beginning, regretfully, with electric cars), with a variety of actions for each issue. The hope is that readers will become more deeply involved with an issue, taking on progressively more involved actions. 

A brief look at the online table of contents reveals a disappointing stance on transportation and virtually nothing about urban form. Train travel makes it, but I can’t find much about walking or bicycling or density. Perhaps I’ll review the book here at some point.


What I thought the most intriguing about the Robert Reich interview was his point was that the environmental movement (and, one presumes, other issue-focused progressive causes) needs to see itself not as narrowly focused on environmental issues, but as part of a broader progressive movement that’s working to improve the quality of life for all people in the country and planet. I find a similarity between this and the argument that Markos Moulitsas (kos) of DailyKos makes: that for each arm of the big progressive tent to keep considering only their own issues, with blinders on for other progressive causes, is short-sighted and self-defeating.

Perhaps the best illustration of this came after the 2006 election, when Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope sung the praises of the new Democratically controlled Congress, for example that changes in committee leadership would allow many more pro-environmental bills to make to the Senate floor for votes. The ironic bit is that this change in leadership happened only because Sierra Club2 endorsed  Republican Lincoln Chafee lost; had he won, the Republicans would still control the Senate and the chair of the Committee on Public Works and Environment would be Republican James Inhofe instead of Democrat Barbara Boxer. Whatever Chafee’s votes on environmental issues were, he still implicitly voted for leadership that included Inhofe and a host of other anti-environmentalists. In an era when the distribution of support for strong environmental protection is not equal between the political parties, the leadership mindset that a candidate supports is at least as important as any particular vote. If the environment wins because Sierra Club endorsed candidates lose, then something’s wrong with the Sierra Club endorsement process. 

Now, kos is talking about elections and Democrats, Reich is talking about issues, but both are asking us to consider our actions and support more broadly–kos for an issue-lousy Democrat, Reich for issues outside the environmental canon. And if we believe the popular trope that everything is connected to everything else, then this makes sense, because we can build on the synergy that happens with congressional majorities and a broader coalitions. The era of narrow focus and litmus tests should be ended.

  1. This was an especially timely note for me, as I just bought a compost bin. []
  2. and League of Conservation Voters []

May 14, 2008   2 Comments

Packaging cards

The domain name here,, is a made-up name. When I tell people I have a blog, or that I have a site with new picture each day of my son, I need to make sure the offer the domain name in writing, because its spelling is not obvious. I decided, recently, to make up some cards with the domain name, so I could hand them out like business cards.

I chose two different styles: the first, which I ordered from eInvite, are simple: the domain name, my name, and my email address. They had sufficiently robust online design tools so that I could get the type of card I had imagined without worry that fonts wouldn’t be imbedded or that some other problem associated with emailing a PDF wouldn’t happen. And I am quite pleased with the cards.

The second ones were photo cards, to promote the Matthew Picture of the Day. I wanted full-color photos on these, with the website url. For these, I went with Moo‘s mini-cards, which seem to be the favorite of hipster digital designer types. These, too, came out well. 

I got 100 of each, which for business-size cards is a small order. But I’d like to compare the packaging that each company sent my cards in.

First, the photo mini-cards. One hundred of them, in a small box, in a modest padded envelope:

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May 8, 2008   1 Comment