Friday, August 31, 2012

Links and Notes

* Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently had an excellent parsha on letting go of hate.

* Two excellent discussions of mathematical reasoning, both quite readable (and by that I do not mean merely 'readable for people familiar with the field' but 'readable by any intelligent reader willing to take the time'):

William Thurston, On Proof and Progress in Mathematics (PDF)
Barry Mazur, Is It Plausible? (PDF)

The first was published, the second just notes for a talk, but both are worth reading. Mazur, incidentally, is one of the best expositors of mathematics that I have found. Mathematicians in general are horrible expositors of mathematics unless they are talking to other mathematicians; they always explain things as if they are talking to mathematicians who just haven't studied up on the particular question in hand, and not, say, as if they are talking to archeologists or poets. It's not wholly their fault; for most things in mathematics, good exposition requires knowing what your audience already knows, so that you can see what they will or can pick up on immediately, and this is often not something that can be known before you've done lot of trying. But there are certain ways that do well in general, and Mazur's expository articles and notes are invaluable. Even if you don't follow the mathematics in particular examples, they are usually put forward in such a way that even a nonmathematician can see why they are examples (which, I think, many mathematicians don't understand is usually the problem with their examples) and what general moral you should draw from them. His discussions of area, on time in mathematics and literature, on stories about mathematics, and on equality are all well worth reading. (They are all PDF; the stories one is probably easiest and the equality one probably most difficult of this group for a typical nonmathematician, but they are none of them too onerous if you just think them through.)

* John Wilkins had an excellent post recently on phylogeny and the history of language and culture.

* Several discussions of runic inscriptions. They all tend to highlight the fact that beyond a certain point the field of study has to be fairly speculative in nature; runology is a field in which the evidence is often definite as far as you get it, but is also scattered and patchy enough that it can be hard to know what to make of it as a whole.

* Peter Millican's eight week General Philosophy course, for first-year students, is online. This is quite a nice series, although it really only focuses on modern philosophy, especially early modern. I've only dipped into it here and there, but all I've heard is good (he manages to avoid all the standard errors that arise in discussing Malebranche and Berkeley, for instance, which is in general a reliable sign of quality). If you want to brush up, or get a first introduction to basic names and ideas in early modern philosophy, it's well worth the listen.

* Michael Genesereth's free online Introduction to Logic course sounds interesting; it is from a Computer Science perspective and requires high school mathematics. It starts September 24.

* A rather hilariously funny story at Slate about what Swedes think of The Swedish Chef from the Muppets (ht):

“There are three things that people talk to Swedes about pretty uniformly: the Swedish Chef, Abba, and Ikea,” says Michael Moynihan, a Brooklyn-based journalist who is married to a Swede and founded the English language Stockholm Spectator magazine while living in Sweden as an expatriate.

Like me, he found that Swedes (or at least Swedish wives living abroad) get deeply irritated when they are confronted with questions about particleboard furniture, “Dancing Queen,” and the meaning of “Börk börk börk.” Moynihan says everyone who meets his wife approaches her with some variation of the Swedish Chef question, but she has learned to brush it off.

Apparently the Swedes think he sounds Norwegian. They didn't ask any Norwegians whether they think he sounds Swedish. Actually, if you listen to Swedes who are especially excited or happy, the tonal differences between Norwegian and Swedish vanish for people who aren't used to listening for them. (And, in general, Norwegian sounds happier and friendlier to non-Scandinavians than Swedish does, for precisely the reasons that the Swedish Chef sounds Norwegian to Swedes.)

* Of course, any American is going to think the accent here sounds like the Swedish Chef:

And that's very definitely a Swedish commercial.

* MrsDarwin on Augustine's confessions for children.

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