Cédric Villani’s Birth of a Theorem is a very terrible book — October 9, 2017

Cédric Villani’s Birth of a Theorem is a very terrible book

Just going to be mercifully brief with this one. The notes at the end of the book say this:

No attempt has been made to expand upon, much less to explain, fine points of mathematical detail, many of which will be unfamiliar even to professional mathematicians.

They also say this:

Whatever else it may be, it is in no way, shape, or form a scientific treatise.

Yet anyone who opens the book will notice quite enormous equations, and proofs (or at least proof outlines) spanning multiple pages. He or she will also notice long transcripts of email exchanges containing — and this must be a first for any book not written by Leslie Lamport or Donald Knuth — lots of un-rendered TeX source code.

I don’t know who the intended audience for this book is. I don’t know who the intended audience for this book could be. Does anyone want to read emails with un-rendered TeX? Mathematical amateurs will get virtually nothing out of this book. Mathematical professionals, as mentioned in the note I quoted, will get very little out of this book. The book itself doesn’t even know who its audience is. It gives brief, mildly fun biographical sketches of brilliant mathematicians, which suggests that maybe the book is intended for non-professionals. But the volume is filled with so much dense mathematics that’s only professionals could read it. Complicated mathematical concepts are used, but then mostly explained many pages after they’re first mentioned.

The book is mostly an exercise for the author, who recently won a Fields Medal, to talk about how clever he is in the guise of just showing “a day in the life” of a professional mathematician. So on page 15, Villani grants us the favor of letting us listen to this conversation with his colleague:

“Violent relaxation, Cédric, is like Landau damping. Except that Landau damping is a perturbative regime and violent relaxation is a highly nonlinear regime.”

These sentences don’t make any sense to me. The author has done nothing to ensure that they’ll make sense to anyone apart from, I suppose, specialists within his particular corner of mathematics.

The book generally is supposed to show the thought process that led the author to prove something about Landau damping, whatever that might be. So it’s got diary entries, emails between him and his colleague, and scenes from the author’s life with his family (including recounting stories he tells his kids). So it feels like a bunch of hastily bolted together snippets that are supposed to form a book. If I had to guess, I would assume that his Fields Medal brought him a lot of press in France (which I’m told honors scholars much more than the United States does), and that his publishers decided to capitalize on it by throwing this out to the world as quickly as possible.

All the paper copies of this book should be pulped, and the hard drives on which the electronic copies exist should be subjected to strong magnets.

How to make moral judgments about others when their will isn’t entirely free — October 7, 2017

How to make moral judgments about others when their will isn’t entirely free

In college, I dated a woman who was, it turned out, quite seriously mentally ill. She had Borderline Personality Disorder, which led to her engaging in reckless sex, spending, etc. She cheated on me. It was awful.

How much does the mental illness — the fact that there’s a label attached to her collection of behaviors — excuse those behaviors? Actually, let’s ignore the actual diagnosis and the actual label. Let’s just take it as given that the underlying understanding of her mind is correct: that it is harder for her to avoid certain risky behaviors than it is for the rest of us. Let’s suppose that she could, if she tried very hard, avoid those risky behaviors, but that it takes a lot more work for her than it does for others. How justified are we in thinking ill of her? How much does the illness excuse?

Or take another, quite different situation which I think shares a lot of similarities with the above. Lots of people live in car-dependent places. Consequently, their daily lives involve their inflicting more damage on the environment than do those who live in denser, more-walkable areas. On the one hand, we may want to pass moral judgment on them: their actions are harmful to all of us, and to our children. On the other, what leads many people to live in car-dependent areas are structural problems, namely that mass transit in this country is poor and that housing in dense, walkable areas is expensive. People could, perhaps, choose to live where their environmental damage is lower, but that choice comes with a cost. In some places (I’m thinking of San Francisco here), the choice is too costly to be reasonable for many people. So they buy a car, live out where the land is cheaper (and where their children can play in the backyard, etc.), and harm the environment more than they would in the city.

The similarity between these two situations is that the more-virtuous choice is costly. In some cases it may be prohibitively costly. The mentally ill person may be aware of the damage he or she is inflicting on others, but the biochemical hurdle may be too high to get over. The person living in the suburbs may be able to move closer to the city, but only by swallowing a majority of her income in rent. Yes, in both cases they’re making a “choice”, but it’s a choice in which their hands are largely forced.

Past some extreme, I think many of us intuitively forgive people who misbehave, when their misbehavior seems to come from forces beyond their control. When we hear that a drug dealer chose that path because his community offered no legitimate paths to earn a decent income, we’re willing to forgive — even though he could, with effort, probably have found a legitimate path out. At some point we acknowledge that the effort exceeds what can reasonably be expected of a human being.

At the same time, our hands are always, to some degree or another, forced. I’m born into my circumstances and you’re born into yours. I’m born with my biochemistry and you’re born with yours. Not all behavior is forgivable. Biochemistry doesn’t excuse everything.

Is there just a threshold above which we implicitly forgive people their trespasses? Certain innate limitations — your society denying you a decent legitimate wage; a mental illness for which you’re heavily medicated; a built environment that makes walkable living unattainable for all but the wealthiest — may forgive a lot of behavior that we’d otherwise frown on.

Another way to look at it is that human behavior isn’t one-dimensional: the choice isn’t between living in the suburbs and living in the city; you can choose to live in the suburbs so long as city life is unattainable, and also fight like hell through your city and state governments to ensure that city life becomes affordable to those of lesser means.

I have no particular conclusion here. It occurs to me that actual moral philosophers, who actually know what they’re talking about, have probably written on this topic in an interesting way. I’d love some pointers.

What we talk about when we talk about schools — October 6, 2017

What we talk about when we talk about schools

Everyone in the United States, I think, takes it for granted that certain towns have better schools than others. Nearly everyone would acknowledge that the better schools come with the wealthier towns. If you’re wealthy enough, you move out to the suburbs, or you send your kids to private schools. And practically everyone knows that the price of admission to the wealthy towns is that you own an expensive home: wealthy suburbs aren’t generally filled with tiny condos.

I’d like to contrast this near-universal understanding with the quite remarkable silence around it in American politics. And I’m not making a substantive point, but rather a point about our rhetoric. I was reminded of this when I was thinking about the parts of Hillary Clinton’s book that were boilerplate political material. Boilerplate is, practically by definition, not substantively interesting, but it’s rhetorically interesting to note what’s allowed to be boilerplate in this country and what’s not.

So Hillary is allowed to say that she’s, essentially, a Methodist girl whose parents taught her the value of hard work. If you riff on this for 200 pages, you get half of her book. American rhetoric is filled with this sort of thing. We love Stand and Deliver-type stories, where the underdog works real hard and eventually comes out on top.

Presidential candidates are supposed to talk about individuals, not about systems. And they’re supposed to talk optimistically. This is why Hillary is allowed to talk about this person or that person whom she met on the campaign trail, but not about the forces at work underneath that everyone knows: she’s allowed to say that she met (making up a thing here) a proud young black woman born into poverty in Harlem who pulled herself up by her bootstraps and is now about to graduate from Georgetown Law, but is not allowed to talk about the children of upper-middle-class parents who managed to get out of Harlem, move to the suburbs, and have a much easier path into Georgetown.

Part of this is, of course, that the country has a deep commitment to local schooling. I saw this when I was growing up in Vermont: the court recognized that wealthier towns had better schools, acknowledged that this was inequitable, and ordered the legislature to do something about it. The result was Act 60, which angered people all over the state: growing up in my wealthy town, I heard it said that we were being penalized for “being willing to spend more on our students” than poorer towns. Willingness to spend is one way to put it; ability to spend would be another.

Point being that there’s a fairly deep consensus in this country that towns should be allowed to control their own schooling, without interference from any higher levels of government. If a presidential candidate advocated that the Department of Education should work to ensure that schools in rural Mississippi are as good as those in suburban New York City, he or she would be quickly laughed out of the race.

In a lot of ways Americans are committed to condemning children based on the sins of their parents. If you can’t afford to buy a home in an expensive suburb, too bad for your kids; they’ll have to make do with the crappy local school whose ceilings are caving in.

The rhetoric may share a lot of background with Americans’ baffling support for repealing the estate tax. Years ago I read a book — probably Unequal Democracy — which noted the consistent, long-running support in the American electorate for getting rid of the estate tax, even though the vast, vast majority of Americans will never be subject to it. This is connected to American optimism: I may not be wealthy enough to be hit by the estate tax now, but one day I will be. Likewise: it sucks that I have to send my kid to the crappy neighborhood public school, but one of these days I’ll be wealthy enough to afford to live in the suburbs or send my kid to private school. In the meantime, let’s not do anything to weaken the link between wealthy towns and good schools.

Another piece of the rhetoric around schooling might have to do with teacher’s unions. Candidates are allowed to attack bad teachers as the center of the problem, because attacking the school-financing system, or attacking children, are off-limits. If you’re a liberal presidential candidate, and you attack the teachers and attack their unions, then maybe you peel off a few conservatives who praise you for your “tough” stand.

None of this engages substantively with any of these points; that’s deliberate. Smarter people than me have made the substantive argument elsewhere. See Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, about the widespread drive to privatize schools; Gerald Grant’s Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh, whose central idea is, in short, “It’s the segregation, stupid”; and then-Professor Elizabeth Warren’s The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke, which advocates for sundering the link between “where the good schools are” and “where wealthy people live”. (I wonder if now-Senator Warren still supports that.) For a take on the morality of sending your kids to private schools even while you know that it would be collectively better for us to all send our kids to public schools, try How Not to be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened — October 5, 2017

Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened

Just the author's name and the title, basicallyI’ll keep this one relatively brief. I’ll avoid a lot of what you could get by listening to any number of great interviews with Clinton (e.g., Ezra Klein‘s, Longform‘s, or the New Yorker Radio Hour‘s).

Basically I divide the book into two types: there’s the rigorous analytical piece — on why exactly she lost the election, or on how misogyny and sexism work — and then there’s the homespun piece. The homespun piece is what you expect from most political memoirs: my mommy always taught me this, my Methodist faith taught me that, etc. I didn’t get terribly much out of the homespun piece … until I thought about it a bit more. Clearly there is something strong within Secretary Clinton that has kept her in the public eye for 20+ years despite being demonized by the Right at every turn. Is it so far-fetched to believe that, when things get bad — and they’ve been really, really bad for her quite often for decades — she falls back on a deep reserve of fundamental values? I’ve not been tested a millionth as much as Clinton has; I imagine that if I had been so tested, I would spend at least some of my time trying to understand how I’d pulled through. A lot of the answers I would come to would probably sound too clean-cut, but that’s because life is much messier lived forward and much clearer understood backward.

As for the other half of the book — the analytical piece — it alone justifies the price of admission. In 20 years, when we want to understand the madness of the 2016 election and the madness of the Trump presidency, the final 1/3 or so of What Happened will be a vital primary source.

Then there are the “please imagine” bits, like this:

I’ve written about this before but it’s worth saying again: one of the reasons he lost the Governor’s race in 1980 was because I still went by my maiden name. Let that sink in for a moment and please imagine how it felt.

Or this:

We’ve certainly had dark days in our marriage. You know all about them—and please consider for a moment what it would be like for the whole world to know about the worst moments in your relationship.

I did, repeatedly, stop and imagine the constant attack she’s been under for 20 years, and it was horrifying.

Without her going into very much detail about them at all, there are what appear to be changes of heart on policy since the election:

Targeted programs may be more efficient and progressive, and that’s why during the primaries I criticized Bernie’s “free college for all” plan as providing wasteful taxpayer-funded giveaways to rich kids. But it’s precisely because they don’t benefit everyone that targeted programs are so easily stigmatized and demagogued.

That sounds to me exactly right: push for universal programs. I would go further: push for universal programs that are free at point of service, funded by steeply progressive taxes.

Other parts, again echoing what you’d expect from a political memoir, are not believable — like this:

More than anyone else, it was Chelsea who helped me to see that my stance on same-sex marriage was incompatible with my values and the work I had done in the Senate and at the State Department to protect the rights of LGBT people. She impressed upon me that I had to endorse marriage equality if I was truly committed to equal human dignity, and as soon as I left the State Department, I did.

I have a very hard time believing that Clinton had some realization about the incompatibility of two of her principles, which led her — through the pure light of Reason alone, guided by her daughter’s steady hand — to support gay marriage. My cynical mind says that the story is simpler: for a time, the American public wasn’t behind gay marriage, and then it very quickly came to support it. I likewise don’t believe that Obama’s views “evolved”.

What’s strange about her treatment of this issue is that it’s not that hard to frame the cynical reasoning as correct. I can certainly believe that, had Clinton supported gay marriage, she would’ve lost some elections, or would’ve lost some votes in the Senate. You judge politicians, I should hope, by the overall direction of their policy accomplishments; to the extent that gay marriage held other issues back, there’s a fine argument for opposing gay marriage. I find it a little odd that she doesn’t address this policy thought process much at all in her book. Instead it’s what we heard during the campaign: I’ve fought for decades on this and that and the other thing — it’s a steady forward march, driven ever onward by my bedrock principles. Unless I skimmed too quickly, I didn’t catch any instances when Clinton was forced to compromise her bedrock principles in the service of a greater good.

That aside, What Happened is a very, very good book, worth reading if only for the pieces about misogyny and electoral nuts and bolts. It’ll make you sad all over again, and remind you — as though you needed reminding — of the crisis we’re still in.

Cooking tools I couldn’t do without — September 24, 2017

Cooking tools I couldn’t do without

Not only does Steve Read, Steve also Cooks. I get great joy out of these things:

  1. Chef’s knife from Global. The only knives you need are a chef’s knife, a serrated knife (for tomatoes and such), and a paring knife. Don’t bother with knife sets; they are stupid, and mostly low quality. Get a chef’s knife, sharpen it regularly, and rejoice. (If you’re in Boston, get Patti to sharpen your knives when she’s in your neighborhood.)

  2. Boos block. It’s like a cutting board, but larger (quite heavy) and much better. I lovingly maintain this one using “mystery oil”, and make sure to dry it off after using it, ever since I destroyed the first one I owned. The trouble was that it sat next to the sink, and would stew in sink water for hours and days after cooking. Eventually it became so warped that it would wobble on the countertop. So now, after I’m done with this Boos block, I stand it on its edge and wipe down the counter around it. And whenever the board looks like it’s a little dried out, I slather it in oil. It’s stayed in great shape for a year and a half, and I anticipate many more years of use.

  3. Bench scraper. You might not think you would need a specialized device to scrape things off countertops (and off Boos blocks), but it turns out you do. This one is particularly lovely, and maybe too expensive to buy sight unseen (I believe we got it as a wedding gift), but this one is also great, and costs $7.08.

  4. Apron. I didn’t know much of a difference an apron makes (over constantly getting all your clothes dirty, and/or wetting your hands every few minutes). Turns out: quite the difference!

  5. Any pans from All-Clad. I first encountered these ten-odd years ago, when I was living with roommates in a house on U Street in Washington, D.C. One of my roommates (Ed) owned the house, and didn’t enjoy cooking very much, so I had the kitchen basically to myself. The story went that the house had been owned by an airline pilot or some such, who had bought it to live in with the love of his life. They both enjoyed cooking, so the kitchen was especially lovely: beautiful restaurant-grade six-burner stove, and all the All-Clad cookware a man could hope for. But the dream died quickly: the owner’s partner cheated on him; by the time Ed came to look at the house the owner wanted to get rid of it as quickly as possible and forget that the whole thing had ever happened. The owner sold it to Ed without an inspection, just to speed the process along. Which all sucks, but … All-Clad cookware!

    We have this sauté pan, or something close to it. I think it may be among the more entry-level All-Clad pans; I think there aren’t as many layers to the metal as in the higher-end All-Clad stuff. One of these days, when I have a ton of money, I’m going to invest in all the high-end stuff, and then just spend my days cooking.

    Basically what makes All-Clad great is the evenness of the heat: neither the pan nor the food ever has burned patches. I think that comes from the complicated combination of metals inside, but I’m not sure. All I know is that cooking with All-Clad made me feel like a culinary genius. And the sauté pan we have is the nicest stove-top piece we own.

  6. Cast iron. We have a Dutch oven and a 12-inch skillet. They’re heavy, and require a bit more care than other cookware (never use soap on them, and always dry them quickly), but they repay the effort: the heat is perfectly even, and these pans will last forever. I fully anticipate that I’ll be passing them on to my grandchildren, who will wonder why the hell they’d use musty old cast iron rather than brainwave cookery.

Health-insurance deductibles and the average American’s assets — July 20, 2017

Health-insurance deductibles and the average American’s assets

Here‘s a little thing about health-insurance deductibles:

In short, the BCRA makes changes to regulations that will cause annual deductibles for individual market health plans to skyrocket — to $13,000. But other regulations set the legal limit on annual out-of-pocket spending to $10,900. This means the BCRA’s health plans could actually violate the law.

If you want to get a sense of how large a $13,000 deductible is, consider this, from the Federal Reserve:

respondents are asked how they would pay for a hypothetical emergency expense that would cost $400. Just over half (54 percent) report that they could fairly easily handle such an expense, paying for it entirely using cash, money currently in their checking/savings account, or on a credit card that they would pay in full at their next statement (collectively referred to here as “cash or its functional equivalent”). The remaining 46 percent indicate that such an expense would be more challenging to handle and that they either could not pay the expense or would borrow or sell something to do so.
[…]
among respondents who would not pay the expense in-full using cash or its functional equivalent, 38 percent would use a credit card that they pay off over time and 31 percent simply could not cover the expense.

So around 1 in 7 Americans couldn’t pay a $400 expense in any way.

(There’s a BankRate survey that seems to ask a similar question, but I couldn’t identify the exact question. The Fed’s question is precisely laid out. And of course it’s a more trustworthy source.)

When people talk about how insurance ought to be only for catastrophic expenses, I hope they realize what ‘catastrophe’ entails for a lot of Americans.

A couple conservative pieces on health insurance — July 8, 2017

A couple conservative pieces on health insurance

One from Philip Klein. And another from Peter Suderman.

Both pieces openly acknowledge what the liberal side has been saying for a long time — that Obamacare is a three-legged stool, and that you can’t keep the pre-existing-condition regulations (“guaranteed issue”) without keeping the rest. Klein and Suderman then, fascinatingly, land on conclusions exactly opposite to the ones that liberals would land on. Both Klein and Suderman would do away with guaranteed issue, community rating, and all the rest. They would then replace Obamacare with catastrophic insurance, health savings accounts, high-risk pools, and so forth. Fundamentally, they don’t view health care as a human right, and they don’t believe that government has any business getting involved in the insurance market. If you start from those premises, you’ll likely end up where they do.

You get this sort of clarity from op-ed writers, but not from elected officials. I would posit that that’s because the moral basis of Obamacare is in line with most Americans’ values: most Americans would, I think, agree that you shouldn’t be denied care just because you had a pre-existing condition. (A close friend’s son had open-heart surgery very early in life — I want to say before he turned 2 years old. Do we want him to be uninsurable for the rest of his days?) Having granted this premise, elected officials can either give Americans something in line with their moral values — that is, Obamacare or stronger — or can do what writers at Reason would find congenial, tear off the Band-Aid, and give them health care that’s stingy and (by most Americans’ lights) immoral. It’s no wonder that conservative politicians hesitate to take the orthodox-economist position; or, having taken it, refuse to admit that that’s the position they’ve taken. The BCRA can only pass most Americans’ moral muster under cover of darkness.

Parts of the orthodox-economist position are in line with wonky liberalism. Suderman, for instance, writes that the tax deduction for employer-sponsored health insurance “is the original sin of the United States health care system,” and is “[w]orth more than $250 billion annually.” Many liberals would love to get rid of it; I certainly would. There’s a liberal case against it: it’s regressive, and it makes a dollar of health insurance worth more than a dollar of salary, with the predictable effect that employers pay less in salary and more in health insurance. (I’ll look around for research on how much of Americans’ well-documented wage stagnation can be explained by this tax preference.)

The much-maligned “Cadillac tax” in Obamacare sought to do away with this regressive tax expenditure, albeit stealthily. High-value employer-based health-insurance plans would be taxed, and the definition of “high value” would not be adjusted for inflation. So over time, more and more health plans would be subject to the tax. The dream was that high-value health plans would slowly fade away and salaries would rise; we’d take away with one hand (the Cadillac tax) what we gave with another (the tax deduction).

I have no problem granting that this is ugly: to correct one tax sin, we create another. It’s the embodiment of a libertarian parody of how government works. While granting this, I’m sympathetic: politics is the art of the possible. My liberal dream also collides with the art of the possible: I’d prefer something akin to the Canadian system or expanding Medicare to everyone, or expanding the VA hospital system to everyone, but those are also not yet possible. We take what we can get for now.

In any case, it doesn’t matter: the Cadillac tax was unpopular with everyone, including labor unions. Orthodox economics runs up against the art of the possible.

I’m happier with a discussion centered around the Philip Kleins and Peter Sudermans of the world than I am with one centered around Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell; at least the former are more honest about what they want. Though this, from Suderman, is misleading:

Medicare, meanwhile, offers a huge system of federal benefits to older Americans that typically run far beyond what most have paid in. Its introduction was associated with explosive growth in hospital-costs inflation during the 1970s.

That was absolutely true about Medicare … in the 70s. It’s not true anymore. The keyword you want to Google for here is the “prospective payments system”. See this review from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, for instance. Suderman has better arguments than this; I wonder why he chose to use a poor argument there.

Obamacare featured lots of experiments to control costs, including the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which Sarah Palin famously derided as “death panels”. It’s somewhat isolated from the political process, presumably because politicians realize that doing what’s right will often be at odds with what voters want.

I don’t believe, though, that any number of experiments in cost control will sway those of a libertarian cast of mind, because I believe we’re fundamentally having a debate over values rather than one over implementation details. I’m happy that those values — the desire for universal coverage against the belief that health care should be treated like any other market good — are out in the open. Let’s argue it on those moral grounds.