Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

August 29: Bucket o' Links

I'm stealing a good idea from a friend, who stole it from a friend. It goes like this: Fridays, I'll write up a post that consists of seven cool (or interesting, or important...) things I found elsewhere on the internet (or in bookspace, or whatever). That's it.

If I can manage that, it sets a floor of one post per week, which is good, and hopefully shames me into writing something else in-between to avoid the shame of posting two consecutive Fridays, which is better. Or it'll fail and I'll look foolish. Who knows? Presenting...Friday Bucket o' Links (which also goes by the name "Seven Quick Takes" elsewhere)


In what I promise is the last Excellent Sheep-related thing I'll link to this month, here's an excellent two-sided discussion between Harry Lewis and Bill Deresiewicz on excellence, souls, sheep, and related things in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Both sides make excellent points, though perhaps it's no surprise which I think comes out on top. Excerpt from Lewis:

"'Excellence' appears, in different forms, in the titles of both our books. I meant it in a positive sense; I think American universities produce excellent results, in both people and ideas. On the human side it’s an incomplete form of excellence -- not enough arete -- but the research university is the greatest structure ever created for free thought, discovery, and creation. The competition for excellence drives that engine, for all the pathological side effects we both describe. Undergraduates can and do join that process at a high level while they are still young enough to have their eyes opened.

But you write to college students: 'You want to make it to the top? There is no top. Mailer wanted to be Hemingway, Hemingway wanted to be Joyce, and Joyce was painfully aware he’d never be another Shakespeare. And so it goes in every field. I can tell you right now where you’re going to end up: somewhere in the middle, with the rest of us. Does it really matter exactly where?'

This is what you mean by 'democracy' instead of 'meritocracy'? If you had been Mailer’s adviser at Harvard, would you really have told him to stop aspiring to be Hemingway? He might have wound up a happier man, but at what artistic price? Heaven knows we need to restore some human balance. But students need to manage the stress, not drop out from what creates it. Competition to excel benefits humanity -- given the right concept of 'excellence.'"

And along with it, a few zingers: "While we’re waiting for that to happen, let’s goad or shame the faculty into doing their real job, turning adolescents into grown-ups."; "Well, we are now teaching aspiring sons and daughters of plumbers, ... and they have enough problems with the faculty without your looking right through them as though they weren’t there."; "Look, the top research universities are the backbone of the nation—and that isn’t meant entirely as a compliment. Yes, they educate a large number of national leaders and generate a large part of the nation’s economic growth. But it’s also true that, like the human spine, they are doing lots of things for which they were never designed, because they were never designed at all." Look, it's wonderful throughout, and you should just go read it.


Related by way of being excellent, Mike Bostock, author of the d3.js visualization framework, has a stunningly beautiful hands-on example of how algorithms should be taught in the 21st century. Eating his own dogfood, as they say, he uses d3 to produce spectacular animations of various algorithms running right in front of your eyes. It's a computer science lecture that doesn't require you read code. It's eye candy that teaches you about algorithms. It's art. I'm not doing it justice, so here's a Poisson-disc sampling of Starry Night:
A graphic example of a particular algorithm's output
Bostock's got a great explanation of what exactly that means, so go read it.


Also filed under "perfect solutions to painful problems", here's an NPR piece about Hope House, a summer camp where daily activities include visiting dad in prison. For children who don't live near where their fathers are incarcerated, the opportunity is huge. Click through to listen to the 6-minute NPR broadcast that left me actually in tears.


In the vein of "treating people like people, not problems", here's a advice-column piece titled "My Dad Is a Right-Wing Asshole", with good things to keep in mind with bitter conflict raging in Ukraine, in Gaza, and in Missouri. (I tried to write a much longer post about the same piece, but only managed to put words in the way of ideas, so I'd suggest you just read the piece and give it a think. Excerpt:

"The world isn't being destroyed by democrats or republicans, red or blue, liberal or conservative, religious or atheist -- the world is being destroyed by one side believing the other side is destroying the world. The world is being hurt and damaged by one group of people believing they're truly better people than the others who think differently. The world officially ends when we let our beliefs conquer love. We must not let this happen."


Love drives altruism, and altruism is a topic my friend Ben Kuhn is fond of writing about. In fact, he's recently put together a list titled "Effective altruism reading material for busy people", which he hopes will shed light on what exactly "effective" altruism means, why it actually matters, and why you find self-professed "effective altruists" so often saying crazy things. He's also got a follow-on series of posts about his experiences as co-president of Harvard Effective Altruism, indexed here.

On the topic of awesome things, Maryam Mirzakhani [was awarded the Fields Medal two weeks ago](http://www.mathunion.org/fileadmin/IMU/Prizes/2014/news_release_mirzakhani.pdf), making her the first woman and the first Iranian to win mathematics' most prestigious award. (The award, given every four years to selected mathematicians under the age of forty, was offered to four mathematicians this cycle; the full announcement from the IMU is [here](http://www.mathunion.org/general/prizes/2014/).) A long-form biographical on Dr. Mirzakhani is [here](http://www.simonsfoundation.org/quanta/20140812-a-tenacious-explorer-of-abstract-surfaces/), courtesy of the Simons Foundation.
And, just two countries away from Iran (which, despite being Dr. Mirzakhani's birthplace, was _not_ where she did her work...), Russian inspectors [shut down four McDonaldses in Moscow](http://www.marketwatch.com/story/russia-shuts-four-mcdonalds-restaurants-in-moscow-2014-08-20) last week. Symbolic of course, but not a good sort of symbolic. So much for [the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lexus_and_the_Olive_Tree#Golden_Arches_theory)

...and we're done! Join me next Friday for next week's Bucket o' Links, or hopefully earlier (if I ever get around to writing an actual post...).