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The Life Cycles of Walls

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Barriers, Real and Symbolic, Also Invite Interaction

Since ancient times, rulers have built walls to define borders, keep some people in, to keep other people out, control immigration and smuggling and provide opportunities for taxation.  Border walls are also sites of complex interaction.

The Roman Emperor Hadrian built a wall across what was then called Britania, in the 120s AD, to separate the Roman-ruled population from the rebellious Picts and Scots who lived in the northern part of Britain. Hadrian’s Wall, begun in 122 AD, was a stone fortification that ran about 73 miles from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea. 

In a Scientific American article Krystal D’Costa tells how the life cycle of Hadrian’s Wall illustrates the way walls built as barriers function over time as monuments and places of exchange that generate experiences of identity and place. Local Britons supplied six years of labor building Hadrian’s Wall, which also featured garrisons and smaller military stations. It remained intact and functional as a boundary and means of levying taxation until the Fifth Century.

When the Romans withdrew from Britain, the wall fell into disrepair, and its polished white stones were looted for other construction. Much of the wall survives today, and is a tourist attraction. But it has served many ideological as well as physical purposes. D’Costa writes that Hadrian’s Wall was viewed as a symbolic reminder of Britain’s Roman heritage, which became important in the Eighteenth Century as the British Empire expanded. She cites the belief that linkage to the Roman wall lent authority to the British presence by suggesting the British Empire had inherited Roman imperialist rights.   Those north of the wall, however, didn’t celebrate the Roman history.  In the Scottish view, D’Costa writes, the wall was a “symbol of valor for the ancient Scots who resisted and opposed the imperial aims” of Rome. 

Even as the wall separated some people, however, it brought others together.  Roman legions recruited soldiers from distant regions, and records indicate many who joined the troops came from Germany, Spain and other places. As they settled along the wall, they married local residents, creating population of mixed culture who, D’Costo writes, were “uniquely rooted in this space.”

Construction on parts of the Great Wall of China, the most famous of the ancient physical boundaries, was sporadic from the eighth through fifth centuries BC. Work on a long barrier protection wall was revived under the Ming Dynasty in the Fourteenth Century to hold back invading Mongols. The wall also allowed taxation on merchants who traveled the Silk Road, a network of trading routes that arose in ancient times and continued for centuries fostering cultural and economic exchange. The Great Wall included troop garrisons, watch towers and military outposts and its path served as a transportation corridor. Invading Manchus breached the wall in 1644, ending the Ming Dynasty.  

Ancient cities were often surrounded by walls. The famous walls around the city of Jericho, now in the West Bank, built around the tenth century BC, may be the oldest known.  The Biblical story says the walls crumbled after Joshua’s army blew their trumpets. Other walls have failed less dramatically. The ancient  Sumerian king Shulgi built a free-standing boundary wall along the 155 miles between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to keep out Amorite invaders. But eventually, invaders just walked around the wall and the Sumerian city of Ur, in what is modern day Iraq, fell around 2000 BC. Read Krystal D’Costa’s piece on walls here.

For other thoughts, here is Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall, which begins “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”


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Circadian Rhythms and Baseball

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, February 3, 2017

Eastward Travel Harder on the Body Clock

A trip across two or three time zones can make ordinary people feel out of sorts, and even world-class athletes can lose their competitive edge.

A team of researchers who studied more than 46,000 Major League Baseball games over the 20 years between 1992 and 2011 found that player and team performance was measurably impaired by jet lag, which was defined a having had to travel over two or more time zones to get to a game.

Jet lag is a physiological condition in which the body's circadian rhythms are altered. Circadian rhythms, the body's internal clock, are the 24 hour cycles of physiological, biochemical and behavioral processes that drive a wide range of functions in humans and other living organisms. In their recent paper published by, scientists at Northwester University explained that when people fly across two or three time zones their internal 24-hour clock becomes misaligned with the natural environment and its cycle of light and dark. Teams that has crossed one time zone, and had to adjust to a time difference of only one hour, were not considered jet lagged.

Dr. Ravi Allada, the Edward C. Stuntz Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Neurobiology at Northwestern University, said in a university news release that the negative effects of jetlag are detectable and significant. Dr. Allada, an expert in circadian rhythms and the lead author of the study, said both offense and defense, in both home and away games, were impacted, and often in surprising ways.   For example:

  •  The impact of jet lag impairment was stronger for those traveling east than for those traveling west. The authors say that findings supports the hypothesis that the impairments were caused more by failure of the circadian clock to synchronize to the environment light-dark cycles than to the general effects of travel.   
  • The offense of jet lagged home teams was more impacted than the offense of jet lagged away teams. Surprisingly, jet lag from eastward travel had a more negative impact on home teams returning from a road trip than it did on away teams.
  • Negative impact on offense was related to running, and measured by fewer stolen bases, fewer doubles and tipples, and hitting into more double plays.  
  • Both home and away teams, when jet lagged, gave up more home runs. Jet lagged pitchers, especially when they had traveled east, gave up more hone runs.

Dr. Allada says if he were a team manager, he'd send his first starting pitcher to a distant game site a day or two ahead so his body clock could adjust to the local environment. Dr. Allada says the 2016 National League Championship Series offers a possible example of the impact of jet lag on player performance. In Game 2, LA Dodgers ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw shut out the Chicago Cubs, giving up only two hits. In Game 6, when the teams returned to Chicago from LA, the Cubs scored five runs, two of them home runs, off Kershaw. "While it is speculation," Dr. Allada said, "our research would suggest that jet lag was a contributing factor in Kershaw's performance."

The disruption of circadian rhythms has also been found to impact workers in other fields.

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Philosophy Makes Kids Better in Math and Reading

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 26, 2017

With expanded and connected ideas, academics improve

Is it ever OK to lie? If you had a different name would you be a different person? Would you eat an animal if it could talk?

More than 3,000 nine and 10 year-old children in 48 schools across England examined such questions in weekly 40 minute philosophy classes.  The kids weren’t asked to examine the likes of Kant and Kierkegaard. They sat in circles and experienced stories, poems and film clips that prompted discussions on such concepts as truth, justice, friendship and knowledge.  Teachers were specially trained to act as moderators.

The program,  Philosophy for Children, was developed by The Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE), a nonprofit that promotes philosophy I schools, colleges and communities.  The goal for grade school students was to help children reason, formulate and ask good questions, engage in constructive conversation, and develop cogent arguments.  It hadn’t been directed toward raising math and literacy scores. But when the nonprofit Educational Endowment Foundation (EEG) evaluated the results of one year of the program, they discovered the youngsters who participated increased their math and reading scores by the equivalent of two extra months of teaching.  

Youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds achieved the most significant score increases, and researchers think the program, which costs about $23 per child, could provide an effective way to narrow the academic gap between poor and wealthy children.  A story by Sarah Cassidy in The Independent describes the program and quotes Stephen Gorard, Professor in the School of Education at Durham University, the study’s lead researcher: “Our results suggest that these philosophy sessions can have a positive impact on pupils’ math, reading and perhaps their writing skills,” he said. “But crucially, they seem to work especially well for the children who are most disadvantaged. This is very encouraging as we, along with the EEF, are committed to helping tackle educational disadvantage.”

According to a story in The Guardian by Education Editor Richard Adams, teachers and students who took the classes report that classroom behavior and relationships on all levels improved, and that youngsters learned better listening and conversational skills and developed more perusal confidence.  Professor Gorard told Adams researchers aren’t sure why the philosophical discussions improved academic scores in unrelated fields, but suggested that open ended discussions may increase student engagement and enjoyment while improving the capacity to raise questions. He says more research is needed.

Kevan Collins, chief executive of the EEF, told Jenny Anderson of Quartz that the classes gave youngsters new ways if thinking and expressing themselves. “They have been thinking with more logic and more connected ideas,” he said.  Researchers who followed up on results of an earlier philosophy program said beneficial results lasted for two years, with the youngsters who had the classes continuing to outperform those who hadn’t. The EEF tested the effectiveness of the intervention using a randomized control trial, much the way drugs are tested. 

Lizzy Lewis, development manager of SAPERE, described some of the moral, scientific and practical questions that prompt children to explore their own thinking. These include: Can computers think? Is there anything we cannot know? Is it possible to think of nothing? What would you do if you had a ring of invisibility?

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A Plexus Workshop Where Playing Made Music

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, January 9, 2017

A Midwife to Music Inspires New Songs

Did your grade school chorus director tell you to just mouth the words and not sing? Were you told to hold that clarinet in the right position during the concert, just don’t play? 

Jon Gailmor knows how to heal those childhood wounds and restore the joy of musical participation.  In rapid succession, Jon can be funny, thoughtful, trenchant, gentle and provocative as he encourages groups of people to create lyrics, rhythm and melody in bursts of collaborative enthusiasm.  He’s a highly accomplished musician himself, great with guitar and voice.  And he can use those talents to bring forth musical gifts from people who are surprised to discover they have them. “Part of it is spontaneity,” he said, describing the process. “It captures the heart, and where you are. Here’s how I characterize my skill: I’m part catalyst and part midwife. I can be an audience for you, and I’m objective.”

At a recent Plexus Institute workshop in Washington DC, hosted by Lisa Kimball, an entrepreneur, organizational development consultant in healthcare, education and businesses, and former Plexus Institute president, a small group of adults decided their first song would be about complexity and the environment.  It was a universally engaging topic that allowed ample opportunity for modification and change of direction.

Jon struck a D chord that accommodates a range of voices. “I’m a back beat guy,” he said, illustrating a steady downbeat 1 to 3 rhythm, commonly used in classical and military music. Those present called out a profusion of ideas and built on the ideas of their neighbors. Land, seas and starlight met toxic fumes and human folly.  Jon encouraged alliteration, metaphor, free wheeling discussion and advised finding “mouth friendly” words.  The verses are the beads and chorus is the thread that connects them, he explained as he drafted proposed lyrics on a white board. 

“We’re destroying the planet, trash in the sea,” the first verse began, combining several thoughts of contributors.  The conversation probed why we do these things, and how we enable heedlessness.  Are we willing to lighten our footprints? If we don’t want government intervention and regulation, and we want personal responsibility and control, the whole issue of climate change becomes ideologically fraught, observed Bruce Waltuck, who spent much of his career designing business process improvements in federal agencies.  

Lynne Feingold, who has worked in the arts and studied music and improvisation, suggested lyrics representing survival needs of living creatures, endangered by pollution and environmental degradation.  Ann-Marie Regan, an organizational development specialist who works in a highly complex health care institution, offered subtle refinements that smoothed the flow of lyrics.  The chorus, a group-creation, was optimistic. 

“We got this/together/ solutions are learned each day

Green power around us/ sun, wind water/ lead the way.

Another more lighthearted song celebrated the diversity and unexpected juxtapositions of life in Washington, DC, where an Afghan can driver is likely to be a poet and you might run into Peruvian holy men contemplating fate. The words were deliberately whimsical, and message cheerful.

  “Everyone’s welcome/ the rainbow lives here,” the chorus announced, “DC’s our home, where love conquers fear.”

When the songs were finished, Jon made CDs of the group singing them, and those present reflected on the experience.  “We jumped right into the process, and something good happened in the way we interacted and listened to each other,” observed Marc Narkus-Kramer, an executive with a background in music and engineering.  “We all worked together elaborating on each others’ ideas, and no one had too much ego involved.  This is the kind of thing that could be used in business. It could be used to create mission statements, or to get un-stuck. I’ve done some of these things in corporations, and it’s liberating.”

“It is kind of a liberating structure,” Lisa commented.  “The structures of the music and the lyrics are strengthened in the process, and some extraneous things are eliminated.” 

“We didn’t need specific criteria, but we did need to make words and music fit,” said Rich Bataglia, a musician who has taught improv to children, adults and individuals of all ages who have disabilities.   “Improv has some simple rules and complex theory.  And you don’t have to be a poet or a musician. People who can’t sing can be very helpful in crafting a melody.”

Learn more about Jon Gailmor here.


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New Year's Resolutions and Interacting Networks

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, January 9, 2017

Weight: A 'Setting of Complex Interlocking Systems'

This is the season when millions of us resolve to lose weight.  Statistically speaking, weight loss is the most common New Year’s resolution, surpassing vows to do good deeds, spend time with family and find a better job.  Researchers say it’s also the resolution most commonly broken.   

The Harvard Medical School newsletter Healthbeat  stresses we need both diet and exercise, and it urges us to keep math in mind.  One pound of body fat stores some 3,500 calories, the letter says, and walking or jogging uses only about 100 calories a mile. It’s discouraging to think you’d have to walk an extra 35 miles lose one pound. But if you eat 250 fewer calories and walk for 30 minutes every day, you could lose about a pound in a week.  

All sorts of apps are available to measure food intake and calorie burn. Scientific Reports Nature identifies a new tool—artificial intelligence.   The popular app Noom is one of the biggest to turn to AI, and it is described in a Fast Company story by Michael Grothaus. An analysis of the results of 35,921 users from 2012 to 2014 found 77.9% of participants reported a decrease in body weight and nearly 80% said they kept the weight off for more than nine months. The app uses AI to analyze a user’s food intake and exercise data and suggest personalized diets, fitness regimes, and individualized tips on nutrition and health. But Noom President Artem Petakov told Fast Company that mathematical calculations have to be paired with motivation, and that comes with a human coach. (Personalized coaching programs start at about $45 a month.)

Forget will power, Petakov advises, it’s about behavior change, and he asserts behavior change can be learned, just like math or a foreign language. You can learn what triggered bad eating habits, he says, and learn to replace bad habits with better behaviors. Of course an empathetic and knowledgeable coach helps. 

But don’t think it will be easy. A story by Gina Kolata in the New York Times Science of Fat series stresses that it’s simplistic to think there are only a few key places to intervene in the tangled web of controls that set a person’s weight. Researchers studying obese people who had bariatric surgery found there are multiple interacting mechanisms influencing weight, many of which are still not well understood. Dr. Lee Kaplan, an obesity researcher at Massachusetts General, told The Times that bariatric surgery, which only changes the digestive tract, immediately alters more than 5,000 of the 22,000 genes in the human body.  After surgery, he said, there are also changes in hormones, neurons, the white blood cells in the immune system, and in the gut microbiome, the thousands of strains of bacteria in the intestinal tract.

Weight and its management need to be viewed as an “entire setting of complex interlocking system” where a whole network of activity responds to environment as well as genes, Dr. Kaplan says. He explains that means there are whole classes of signals coming from the gut and going to the brain and that they interact to control hunger, satiety, how quickly calories are burned, and how much fat is stored on the body. To make the science of weight and obesity even harder to penetrate, these systems can vary significantly from one individual to another.    

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The Unseen Arbiters in Our Lives

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, December 31, 2016

Value Judgements Live in the Numbers

Algorithms are among the most profound invisible influences in our lives. They help us find our driving destinations, the new music and fashions we like, what we want to read or view.  They are also increasingly used in fundamental decisions about where we live, the schools we attend, the jobs we get, and what happens should we run afoul of the law. 

An algorithm is a procedure or set of instructions to solve a problem or make a data-based predictions.  Many algorithms are secret because the companies that develop them consider them proprietary. 

Increasing evidence shows many algorithms incorporate the biases of the people who write them, and some are unintentionally discriminatory.   A New York Times story by Claire Cain Miller reports, for example, that ad-targeting algorithms have shown ads for high paying jobs to men but not women, and ads for high interest loans are shown to people in low-income neighborhoods but not in upscale areas. 

While racial discrimination in housing is illegal, a Vox story by Alvin Chang illustrates how decisions on criteria for affordable housing, and the design of algorithms used in formation and ads about housing availability, can inhibit a neighborhood’s racial integration and help keep poor neighborhoods poor.  

Cynthia Dwork, a Microsoft Research computer scientist, a leading thinker on algorithm design and analysis, told the Times computer science education must stress that algorithms embody value judgments and therefore bias in the way the systems operate.   “The goal of my work is to put fairness on a firm mathematical foundation, but even I have just begun to  scratch the surface,” she said. “This entails finding a mathematically rigorous definition of fairness and developing computational methods—algorithms—that guarantee fairness.”

As part of its project “Machine Bias” examining algorithms, ProPublica looked at how the U.S. criminal justice system is increasingly using algorithms in predicting a defendant’s risk of future criminality.  An article by Julia Angwin reports that the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled recently that judges could use the computer generated risk scores to determine whether a defendant received jail or probation,  but that the scores could not be “determinative.” The court also said pre-sentencing reports must warn judges about the limits of the algorithm’s accuracy.  Wisconsin has been using the risk scores for four years, but has not independently tested them for accuracy or bias.

ProPublica obtained more than 7,000 risk scores assigned to individual defendants by the company that makes the tool used in Wisconsin.  After comparing actual recidivism to the company’s predicted recidivism, Pro Publica found the scores were wrong 40 percent of the time, and that black defendants were falsely labeled future criminals at almost twice the rate of white defendants. Because the company’s proprietary risk-score formula did not have to be publicly disclosed, ProPublica was not able to examine the data or the calculations used in interpreting it.  

Angwin writes that the Court’s directive to warn judges that risk scores over-predict recidivism among black defendants is a good first step in accountability.  “Yet as we rapidly enter the era of automated decision making,” she wrote, “we should demand more than warning labels.” 

The credit score is the only algorithm that consumers have a legal right to examine, challenge and demand that erroneous data be deleted or corrected. Those rights are spelled out in the Fair Credit Reporting Act signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970.  Advocates for fairness in decision-making software say that today we need the right to examine and challenge data used to make algorithmic decisions about us. 

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Profits, Long Tails and Truth

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, December 31, 2016

The tantalizing opportunities for inexpensive internet marketing is creating a moral quandary for ad agencies and the brands they represent: Are they carelessly bankrolling the toxic websites that promote fake news, wild conspiracy theories and irresponsible rumor? 

A New York Times story by Sapna  Maheshwari explains much online advertising takes advantage of  the long tail of the internet.  The long tail is the name for statistical distributions found in power laws, Pareto distributions,  and exemplified in population clusters,  the occurrence of rare illnesses, and income inequality among other things.  The work of mathematician Benoit Mendelbrot has led him to be called “the father of long tails.”  Chris Anderson popularized the commercial application of term in 2004 Wired Magazine article, and elaborated on it in his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.  A long tail strategy in sales would mean selling small numbers of items from a seemingly infinite inventory to large numbers of people could produce more profit than selling blockbuster items to fewer people.

“The long tail is to advertising what the subprime was to mortgages,” said John Marchese, president of advertising products for the Fox Networks Group, told the Times. . “No one knows what’s in it, but it helps people believe there is a mysterious tonnage of impressions that are really low cost.” “Impressions” is an advertising industry term that generally means an ad has been displayed and can be viewed.

Prominent well-established online sites usually deal directly with their advertisers.  For a fraction of the cost a complex system of agencies and third party networks can place ads on thousands of smaller little-known sites, such blogs and niche sites that draw small but attractive audiences such as parents or trucking enthusiasts.  The system is automated, and as Marchese explains, it is set up to reward clicks and impressions. That reward, according to Marc Goldberg, chief executive of Trust Metrics, an ad safety vendor, has fueled the introduction of low quality sites in the advertising ecosystem.  Technology that can protect brands from appearing on sites that feature violence and pornography has been less effective in weeding out site for irresponsible fake news.

In addition to deliberately fabricated partisan news, teenagers and young adults in the U.S. and abroad this year discovered they could make easy money creating fake news sites and making up rabidly partisan stories intended to be spread Facebook and circulated through Google. Google and Facebook have both announced plans to target false information.

VOX reported researchers found several pernicious fake stories, which even after being discredited, got vastly more shares and reached more people than stories from respected traditional news sources. Further, Vox reported that earlier this year investigations conducted by BuzzFeed found that nearly 40 percent of the content published by far right Facebook pages and 19 percent of the content published by extreme left-leaning Facebook pages was false or misleading.  BuzzFeed even found that in one own in Macedonia, a ring of teens was making money by publishing thousands of fake right-wing news stories across hundreds of fake news websites. Anytime a story went viral, they’d make money on the ads that accompanied it.

Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year. And the “post” in this hyphenated term doesn’t just mean “after.” The Oxford announcement explains "post" now has an expanded meaning signifying that it “belongs to a time when the specified concept (truth) has become unimportant or irrelevant.”


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Nutrition and Nurture Designed for Body and Spirit

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, December 31, 2016

An Entrepreneur Serving Body and Soul

The Reverend Angel Garcia Rodriguez is a Spanish priest who is also an innovator and entrepreneur whose nonprofit enterprises are designed to nourish the body and spirit of those in need.

He has opened four restaurants called Robin Hood in Madrid and other Spanish cities and hopes to see his mini chain grow.  His innovative business, however, doesn’t involve robbing the rich to give to the poor.  The restaurants serve breakfast and lunch to paying customers and use the revenue earned to cover costs of a free evening dinner for the homeless.  A New York Times story by Raphael Minder describes his work.

 Father Angel, as he is called, told The Times poor people need to regain a sense of purpose and dignity that isn’t always on soup kitchen menus. “To get served by a waiter wearing a nice uniform, and to eat with proper cutlery, rather than a plastic fork, is what gives you back some dignity,” he said.  He hopes to open a Robin Hood Restaurant in Miami in January, and is trying to convince celebrity chefs to volunteer their talents for occasional meals.   

He is also president and founder of Messengers of Peace, a non governmental organization with 3,000 employees and 5,000 volunteers who run old age homes and services for people struggling with poverty, unemployment, other social ills, and the impact of deep pubic spending cuts in Spain. The organization also runs projects in developing countries.

Last year Father Angel began a community program in an abandoned church in Madrid, where people, many of whom are destitute, are welcomed 24 hours day regardless of their religion. They can eat, consult with medical volunteers, access free WI-FI and use restrooms. Mass and occasional soccer games are shown on televisions screens.  Food is served in the back pews. Father Angel and another priest say mass, and confession can be conduced by iPad for those who are hard of hearing.   Father Angel acknowledged to The Times that his methods were not always in line with the church’s rules, notably his welcoming of gay couples.  However, he says his actions and methods are broadly in line with the messages of Pope Francis.  Read more stories about Father Angel’s efforts in the China Daily, Gulf News and the Kuwait Times.


Best Wishes for Peace and Joy this Holiday Season! 

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The Costs of Cash and Clashing Concepts of Wealth

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Cash: 'The squirmy ferret of societal wealth' 

Kenneth S. Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and now a professor at Harvard thinks paper currency hinders smooth functioning of the global financial system and he argues the U.S. should phase out cash.

A New Yorker story by Nathan Heller reports Rogoff sees substantial benefits to phasing out cash, starting with big bills and gradually letting smaller bills fall into disuse. Eliminating cash, he says, would make it harder for U.S. currency to be used international corruption,  reduce tax evasion that’s costing government $460 billion a year, and cut other crimes. He thinks it would even deter illegal immigration better than a wall because wages of undocumented workers are by necessity paid in cash.   

Heller’s story examined Sweden, where the biggest denomination bills were eliminated in 2013 and most retail transactions now take place with credit cards and phone apps.  One impetus for the move away from cash, Heller writes, was the Vastberga heist, in which some $6.5 million was stolen rom a cash depot in Stockholm.  Seven men were arrested, he writes, but the money wasn’t found.

“Cash is the squirmy ferret of  societal wealth,  tricky to secure physically and once liberated in the wild, almost impossible to get back,” Heller writes, describing the spread of the trend against cash. “And money, as technology, has changed a lot in half a century. ”  In Belgium, 93 percent of consumer transactions are cashless.  In sub-Saharan Africa, he write, where only a third of the people have bank account but 60 percent have cellphones, mobile payments are surpassing paper currency.  

While young people are comfortable without cash, Heller writes, the de-emphasis of cash has been hard on older Swedes who have less comfort with cards and apps and rural shop owners who use cash but have to travel to distant banks to make deposits and keep bills on hand.   Heller reports that Sweden’s central bank, the Riksbank, and many of its peers are studying blockchain technology, which could in the long term eliminate need for physical cash. Block chain is the technology that underlies Bitcoin.    

Radical changes always disrupt  and in India a crusade against cash has caused chaos.  Prime Minister  Narenda Modi, who was elected in 2014 after campaigning against economic corruption,  is trying to combat the  hoarded and undeclared “dark money” that gets laundered through jewels, buildings and other luxuries. Modi announced Nov. 8 that 500 and 1,000 rupee notes ($7.50 and $15 respectively)  would be good only for four more hours, then would have to be exchanged for smaller notes.  A story in Slate by Hasit Shah describes the confusion and hardships that have accompanied the rush to demonetize.  Too little cash is available, the rules keep changing, and there are long lines at banks and ATMs.  Wages haven’t been paid, and some 300 million people lack the official IDs needed for processing cash exchanges. The ultimate goal is a digital society that would connect India’s huge population to the internet and the broader social and economic opportunities it offers. Shah says right now, that goal is elusive because broadband supply is limited outside urban areas.  There aren’t enough wires in the ground and even in cities mobile connectivity is patchy.     

Cash allows privacy that electronic transactions record, and some people want anonymity. Heller considers what we really want from money.  “What we seek most in currency is a way to mete out dreams,” he writes.  “So far, the U.S. still embraces cash because our concept of wealth is material. We collect it, handle it, hoard it. American money is private.  Sweden has embraced cashlessness more readily in part because it finds the value of currency in the transfer and velocity, the social path it follows, the bonds it traces.  It’s social: a network conception of wealth.”

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Complex Math and Simple Joys

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Learn from the Cake and the Custard

In Eugenia Cheng’s kitchen, custard exemplifies nonassociativity.  You have to combine the sugar and the egg yolks first, and whisk them into a froth before adding the cream.  Blending the ingredients in any different order, she explains, will produce a runny mess.  

Dr. Cheng is Scientist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Honorary Fellow of the University of Sheffield and Honorary Visiting Fellow of City University, London. Previously she was Associate Professor of Pure Mathematics in the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Sheffield, UK.  She is also an extremely good cook.  In her book How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics, she combines her fascinations with math and food with her mission to make math understandable for everyone.

In a New York Times story, Natalie Angier writes about meeting with Dr. Cheng and experiencing the magic of numbers of delicious treats.  Making a cake, for example, is an associative process, because the butter, sugar, flour and eggs can be combined in any order and you’ll still have a cake.   In math, addition and multiplication are associative.   In the nonassociative custard, as in subtraction and division, the order of operations is essential.

Angier describes Dr. Cheng pulling a beautiful and sinfully tempting specimen of knot theory out of her oven, which she named Bach pie, for the great composer loved by mathematicians and almost everyone else. It’s a creamy dark chocolate rectangle, studded with banana slices, topped by an “Escher-like braid of four glazed pastry plaits that follow divergent trajectories, never quite crisscrossing where you expect them to.”    The story provides Dr. Cheng’s analysis of the symbolic confection: “BAnana added to CHocolate gives you BACH,” she explains. The braiding illustrates the structure of a Bach prelude and the kinds of patterns that knot theorists study to find how “looped up the braids are and whether you can transform one braid into another by wiggling the different strings.”  And there’s a recipe.

Aside from her culinary creativity, Dr. Cheng is a theoretical mathematician whose specialty is category theory, a field so abstract and impenetrable that it even has some mathematicians scratching their heads. Angier, a Pulitzer prize winning science writer, glosses over it mercifully. Click here for a paper Dr. Cheng has written to simplify the theory for curious laymen.  Read the Times story here and a review of Dr, Cheng’s cookbook here.

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