Friday, April 17, 2015

[tt] NYT: The Toll of a Solitary Life

The Toll of a Solitary Life
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/16/the-toll-of-a-solitary-life/

By Tara Parker-Pope

The researchers analyzed data collected from 70 studies and more
than 3.4 million people from 1980 to 2014. The studies, which
followed people for about seven years on average, showed that people
who were socially isolated, lonely or living alone had about a 30
percent higher chance of dying during a given study period than
those who had regular social contact. Notably, the effect was
greater for younger people than for those over 65, according to the
report in Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the lead author, said the effect of
loneliness and social isolation was as great a risk factor as
obesity and should be taken seriously as a threat to public health.

"The key point that I hope others will get from this is the
recognition that this is an important public health issue," said Dr.
Holt-Lunstad. "Social isolation significantly predicts risk for
premature mortality comparable to other well established risk
factors. Thus, we need to take our social relationships as seriously
for our health as we do these other factors."

The researchers noted that loneliness could take various forms. Some
people with strong social networks may still feel lonely, even when
surrounded by loved ones. Others choose social isolation and even
prefer it.

Loneliness or living alone seemed to be particularly bad for
middle-aged adults, compared with older people in the same
situation. It may be that solitary middle-aged adults are more
likely to engage in risky behaviors and less likely to seek medical
treatment, whereas older people may pay more attention to their
health. Or it may be that older adults are alone as a result of the
death of a spouse, and have not necessarily experienced years of
social isolation.

The study authors noted that affluent nations had the highest rates
of individuals living alone, and that social isolation would reach
epidemic proportions in the next two decades. "Although living alone
can offer conveniences and advantages for an individual," the
authors wrote, "physical health is not among them."
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[tt] NYT: Hold the Calcium Supplements

I shall not follow this advise. Calcium tablets prevent me from gritting
my teeth.

Hold the Calcium Supplements
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/17/science/17qna.html

Q&A By C. CLAIBORNE RAY

Q. I have been told that women should stop taking calcium
supplements after menopause, as there is a danger of heart attack
and stroke. Is this true?

A. "Several large, credible studies have reported a higher incidence
of heart attacks in both men and women who take calcium
supplements," said Dr. Orli R. Etingin, director of the Iris Cantor
Women's Health Center at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell
Medical Center.

The total intake associated with these adverse outcomes was 1,200
milligrams a day, she said.

The mechanism by which calcium could promote heart attacks is
entirely unclear, Dr. Etingin said. The studies were all done in men
and women in their mid-50s and older, who are at highest risk for
cardiovascular events, and it is not clear if the results apply to
younger groups. Nevertheless, she said, many doctors are now
recommending dropping calcium as a supplement at all ages, replacing
it with dietary calcium.

Many patients ask if calcium is actually deposited in blood vessels,
causing calcified atherosclerotic plaque, "but that does not seem to
be the case, based on these and other studies," Dr. Etingin said.

She added that she usually recommended, as a replacement guide,
three or four portions of calcium-rich foods each day. Each serving
of a dairy product, like cheese, yogurt or milk, contains about 300
to 400 milligrams of calcium, and many other foods, like orange
juice, may have added calcium. Some green vegetables contain it as
well.

For patients worried about bone density, she said, it could be
monitored at intervals to verify its stability on the new regime.
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[tt] NYT: Older Really Can Mean Wiser

Mr. Mencken said the older he gets, the less he believes that with age
comes wisdom. In the EEA and oldster was 30 years old.

Older Really Can Mean Wiser
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/17/health/older-really-can-mean-wiser.html

By BENEDICT CAREY

Behind all those canned compliments for older adults--spry! wily!
wise!--is an appreciation for something that scientists have had a
hard time characterizing: mental faculties that improve with age.

Knowledge is a large part of the equation, of course. People who are
middle-aged and older tend to know more than young adults, by virtue
of having been around longer, and score higher on vocabulary tests,
crossword puzzles and other measures of so-called crystallized
intelligence.

Still, young adults who consult their elders (mostly when desperate)
don't do so just to gather facts, solve crosswords or borrow a
credit card. Nor, generally, are they looking for help with
short-term memory or puzzle solving. Those abilities, called fluid
intelligence, peak in the 20s.

No, the older brain offers something more, according to a new paper
in the journal Psychological Science. Elements of social judgment
and short-term memory, important pieces of the cognitive puzzle, may
peak later in life than previously thought.

The postdoctoral fellows Joshua Hartshorne of M.I.T. and Laura
Germine of Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital analyzed a
huge trove of scores on cognitive tests taken by people of all ages.
The researchers found that the broad split in age-related cognition
--fluid in the young, crystallized in the old--masked several
important nuances.

"This dichotomy between early peaks and later peaks is way too
coarse," Dr. Hartshorne said. "There are a lot more patterns going
on, and we need to take those into account to fully understand the
effects of age on cognition."

The new paper is hardly the first challenge to the scientific
literature on age-related decline, and it won't be the last. A year
ago, German scientists argued that cognitive "deficits" in aging
were caused largely by the accumulation of knowledge--that is, the
brain slows down because it has to search a larger mental library of
facts. That idea has stirred some debate among scientists.

Experts said the new analysis raised a different question: Are there
distinct, independent elements of memory and cognition that peak at
varying times of life?

"I think they have more work to do to demonstrate that that's the
case," said Denise Park, a professor of behavior and brain science
at the University of Texas at Dallas. "But this is a provocative
paper, and it's going to have an impact on the field."

The strength of the new analysis is partly in its data. The study
evaluated historic scores from the popular Wechsler intelligence
test, and compared them with more recent results from tens of
thousands of people who took short cognitive tests on the authors'
websites, testmybrain.org and gameswithwords.org. The one drawback
of this approach is that, because it didn't follow the same people
over a lifetime, it might have missed the effect of different
cultural experiences, said K. Warner Schaie, a researcher at Penn
State University.

But most previous studies have not been nearly as large, or had such
a range of ages. Participants on the websites were 10 to 89 years
old, and they took a large battery of tests, measuring skills like
memory for abstract symbols and strings of digits, problem solving,
and facility reading emotions from strangers' eyes.

At least as important, the researchers looked at the effect of age
on each type of test. Previous research had often grouped related
tests together, on the assumption that they captured a single
underlying attribute in the same way a coach might rate, say,
athleticism based on a person's speed, strength and vertical leaping
ability.

The result of the new approach? "We found different abilities really
maturing or ripening at different ages," Dr. Germine said. "It's a
much richer picture of the life span than just calling it aging."

Processing speed--the quickness with which someone can manipulate
digits, words or images, as if on a mental sketch board--generally
peaks in the late teens, Dr. Germine and Dr. Hartshorne confirmed,
and memory for some things, like names, does so in the early 20s.
But the capacity of that sketch board, called working memory, peaks
at least a decade later and is slow to decline. In particular, the
ability to recall faces and do some mental manipulation of numbers
peaked about age 30, the study found, "a fact difficult to
assimilate into the fluid/crystalized intelligence dichotomy."

The researchers also analyzed results from the Reading the Mind in
the Eyes test. The test involves looking at snapshots of strangers'
eyes on a computer screen and determining their moods from a menu of
options like "tentative," "uncertain" and "skeptical."

"It's not an easy test, and you're not sure afterward how well you
did," Dr. Germine said. "I thought I'd done poorly but in fact did
pretty well." Yet people in their 40s or 50s consistently did the
best, the study found, and the skill declined very slowly later in
life.

The picture that emerges from these findings is of an older brain
that moves more slowly than its younger self, but is just as
accurate in many areas and more adept at reading others' moods--on
top of being more knowledgeable. That's a handy combination, given
that so many important decisions people make intimately affects
others.

No one needs a cognitive scientist to explain that it's better to
approach a boss about a raise when he or she is in a good mood. But
the older mind may be better able to head off interpersonal
misjudgments and to navigate tricky situations.

"As in, 'that person's not happy with all your quick thinking and
young person's processing speed--he's about to punch you,'" said
Zach Hambrick, a psychology professor at Michigan State University.

The details of this more textured picture of the aging brain are
still far from clear, and social measures like the Reading the Mind
in the Eyes test have not been used much in this kind of research,
Dr. Hambrick and other experts said. And it is not apparent from the
new analysis whether changes in cognition with age result from a
single cause--like a decline in the speed of neural transmission
--or to multiple ones.

But for now, the new research at least gives some meaning to the
empty adjective "wily."
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[tt] NYT: THE NEW OPTIMISM OF ALGORE

The New Optimism of Algore
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/17/science/the-new-optimism-of-al-gore.html

By JOHN SCHWARTZ

NASHVILLE--Algore wants to make a point about cellphones, and he
has a helpful set of slides on his laptop. "Do you want to see
that?" he asks, and starts to turn the MacBook around.

"It's not two hours--don't worry."

Algore knows he is The Guy With the Slides, the man who will talk
about the environment until you can no longer remember the color of
the sky. He long ago mastered the self-deprecating gestures that let
you know that he knows what you are thinking. And then he shows you
the slides anyway.

Slides have been very good to the former vice president of the
United States, almost president, environmental activist and now
successful green investor. His slide show on the threat of climate
change, presented in the movie "An Inconvenient Truth," won an
Academy Award. His efforts to spread the word about global warming
earned him, along with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, a Nobel Peace Prize. His was a dire call to
strenuous and difficult action.

Over the last year, however, the prophet of doom has become much
more a prophet of possibility--even, perhaps, an optimist. Still
an object of derision for the political right, Algore has seen
support for his views rising within the business community:
Investment in renewable energy sources like wind and solar is
skyrocketing as their costs plummet. He has slides for that, too.
Experts predicted in 2000 that wind generated power worldwide would
reach 30 gigawatts; by 2010, it was 200 gigawatts, and by last year
it reached nearly 370, or more than 12 times higher. Installations
of solar power would add one new gigawatt per year by 2010,
predictions in 2002 stated. It turned out to be 17 times that by
2010 and 48 times that amount last year.

"I think most people have been surprised, even shocked, by how
quickly the cost has come down," Algore says in his office in an
environmentally friendly building in the prosperous Green Hills
neighborhood of Nashville. He sports a style that might be called
Southern business casual: a blazer and dress shirt, bluejeans and
cowboy boots. At age 66, he is also trimmer than he was during his
bearish, bearded period after the 2000 election, thanks in part to a
vegan diet he has maintained for two years. In this city? Home of
heavenly meat-and-three platters?

He smiles and says proudly, "There are 10 vegan restaurants in
Nashville now."

Over an hour and a half, he delivers an endless stream of facts and
trends from around the globe. Every minute in Bangladesh, two more
homes get new rooftop solar panels. Dubai's state utility accepted a
bid for a solar power plant with a cost per kilowatt-hour of less
than six cents. "Wow," he says, his eyes wide. "That just set
everybody on their ear."

Such changes, he says, represent a sharp break with the past, not a
slow evolution. That is the point of those slides on his laptop. In
1980, one shows, consultants for AT&T projected that 900,000
cellphones might be sold by 2000. In fact, there were 109 million by
then. Today there are some seven billion. "So the question is: Why
were they not only wrong, but way wrong?" he says. He presses a
button, and up pops an old photo of a young Algore with a helmet of
hair and an early mobile phone roughly the size of one of Michael
Jordan's sneakers.

The same kind of transformation that turned those expensive,
clunkers into powerful computers in every pocket is happening now in
energy, he says, with new technology leapfrogging old
infrastructure. "It's coming so fast," he says. "It's very, very
exciting."

All of this means, he adds, that the worst effects of climate change
can be blunted. "We've got a lot of work to do," he says. "We're
going to win this." He pauses and repeats for effect, part preacher
and part TED talk. "We're going to win this.

"The only question is how long it takes."

He is pleased to see the Obama administration becoming more active
on climate issues. President Obama's advocacy of climate change
action was overshadowed by the push for health care legislation, a
disappointment for Algore and other environmentalists. "He did not
use the bully pulpit in quite the way many of us would have wanted
in his first term," Algore says. But since Mr. Obama's
re-election, his stronger voice on global warming, tougher carbon
emission regulations and major climate agreement with China have the
former vice president smiling. "He's doing a terrific job on it
now," he says.

Algore is continuing to spread the word. Last month, at the end of
an optimistic talk about climate change at the World Economic Forum
in Davos, Switzerland, he and the singer Pharrell Williams announced
a Live Earth concert to be held on all seven continents on June 18.
The concert will include a moment, Mr. Williams told those at the
forum, when "we are literally going to have humanity harmonize all
at once."

In the meantime, Algore will keep his frenetic schedule of
training programs around the world. He has met with large groups in
Australia, Indonesia, Brazil, India and elsewhere to present local
versions of his climate change slide show. Those who attend, in
turn, make the presentation to their own countrymen, spreading the
word far more broadly than the documentary ever did. "The work of
the trainees is not the sort of thing you see on the front page of
the newspaper, but they are reaching networks of colleagues and
friends in a most powerful way," said Don Henry, a professor at the
Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and former head of the
Australian Conservation Foundation. "Those people are out there
changing the world."

Those presentations are exhaustive--and exhausting, says Orin
Kramer, a New York hedge fund manager and friend of Algore. He
attended a training program with some 600 people that was scheduled
to run from 8:30 in the morning until 5 p.m. "I assumed there's
going to be a 40-minute warm-up" by Algore, he says, and then the
rest of the day's activities would be led by assistants.

Instead, "he stands up there in front of this group of people for
eight and a half hours and 164 climate slides," Mr. Kramer says.
Many members of the audience were scientists who asked pointed
questions, citing specific studies; Algore answered study with
study, point for point. "He knew more about the academic literature
than any of the academics in the audience," Mr. Kramer says. "He
basically out-nerded all the other nerds in the room."

At the same time, Algore is a less visible leader of the
environmental movement in the United States. While he participated
in the enormous march before the climate summit in New York City in
September, he was not a focus of coverage. But his voice is still
being heard, said Reed E. Hundt, a close friend of Algore who
served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during
the Clinton administration. "Give me the top three global leaders in
opinion shaping climate change," he says. "If you don't put Algore in
that group, I'd be surprised." But being the lone voice, he adds,
means "being a prophet without honor."

"Nobody wants that job," Mr. Hundt says. "When you go from being the
one guy that says this and that and the other to being the first
among equals, to being part of a group of like-minded people, that's
called success."

Algore has also become very rich. He co-founded Generation
Investment Management, a firm that takes positions in companies that
manage themselves along principles of sustainability, including the
effects of climate change. He also sits on the board of the venture
capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which invests heavily
in green start-ups. He sold his cable channel, Current TV, to Al
Jazeera America in 2013 in a deal that earned him a reported $100
million. (He and his fellow shareholders sued Al Jazeera last year
over the deal, alleging fraud and breach of contract.)

His success in the business world has surprised many people, Mr.
Kramer says. "I didn't think of him as a business guy--I'm sure
nobody did," he says, adding that "he is a phenomenally deep student
of critical forces that ultimately change society."

This success has also been the subject of howls from those who find
much to dislike about Algore. His old foes eagerly take aim when
his name comes up. Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma,
who has called climate change "the greatest hoax," now heads the
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. When asked his view
of Algore, he issued a lengthy diatribe against the former vice
president's "alarmism campaign." Through a spokeswoman, he said in
part, "Algore's immense wealth is largely due to his shameless and
incessant promotion of the liberal global warming agenda." He added
that the federal climate policies Algore endorses "would infuse
his business ventures with large sums of taxpayer dollars and set
him up to become the first climate billionaire." Mr. Inhofe also
referred to a challenge he issued to Algore in 2007 to reduce the
carbon footprint of his Nashville mansion and extensive travel.

When Algore is asked whether he will respond to Senator Inhofe's
comments, Algore calls him a "nice man." As the first words are
read to him, he chuckles, but his smile grows tense. As the
statement ends, he sighs and says, "Where to start?"

He lets out a breath. "The most powerful advocate for solving the
climate crisis is not me, but Mother Nature," he says. "The reality
of the climate crisis is overwhelming, and more and more people see
it and feel it every day."

As for the senator's challenge, Algore says he does not remember
the exchange, but describes the ways he has reduced the
environmental impact of his home. He buys electricity from a utility
that generates its power from wind and solar sources and has 32
solar panels on his home, as well as insulating windows and LED
light bulbs. There are 10 geothermal wells under the driveway. "I do
walk the walk, and don't just talk the talk," he says.

Is participating in the green economy a conflict of interest? "I
think that having a consistent outlook in my advocacy and in the way
I invest is a healthy way to live," he says. Much of what he makes,
including all salary from his early stage investing work as a
partner at Kleiner Perkins and his Nobel Prize money, goes to his
advocacy group, the Climate Reality Project. "I never imagined when
I was younger that this would become the principal focus of my
life," he says. "But once you pick up this challenge, you can't put
it down. I can't. Don't want to."

Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Project on Climate
Change Communication, says Algore has become a symbol of climate
change, which is both good and bad. He energized Democrats on
climate issues, but alienated many conservatives, with the eager
help of groups like the Heartland Institute and its allies like Mr.
Inhofe, who demonize Algore as part of their campaign to undercut
the scientific consensus on the human role in global warming.

"Algore cannot ever reinvent himself from the fact that he became
one of the country's most polarizing political leaders," Dr.
Leiserowitz says. "Even as he is trying to explain climate change,
he is reminding people, amplifying the conservative response around
him."

Algore has learned to live with the scorn. "Anyone who carries
this banner is going to get shot at," he says. "And I could say it's
an honor to be the object of such ire from those who are so on the
wrong side of history," he adds, laughing.

"It doesn't feel like a great honor," he says. He spreads his arms.
"I'm certainly no longer surprised by it."

Another pause. "Let them have at it."
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[tt] GUARDIAN: JOHN GRAY: STEVEN PINKER IS WRONG ABOUT VIOLENCE AND WAR

Note that Gray does NOT offer any statistics of his own.

John Gray: Steven Pinker is wrong about violence and war
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/13/john-gray-steven-pinker-wrong-violence-war-declining
[Thanks to Sarah for this!]

A new orthodoxy, led by Pinker, holds that war and violence in the
developed world are declining. The stats are misleading, argues Gray
- and the idea of moral progress is wishful thinking and plain wrong

[41]John Gray

For an influential group of advanced thinkers, violence is a type of
backwardness. In the most modern parts of the world, these thinkers
tell us, war has practically disappeared. The world's great powers
are neither internally divided nor inclined to go to war with one
another, and with the spread of democracy, the increase of wealth
and the diffusion of enlightened values these states preside over an
era of improvement the like of which has never been known. For those
who lived through it, the last century may have seemed peculiarly
violent, but that, it is argued, is mere subjective experience and
not much more than anecdote. Scientifically assessed, the number of
those killed in violent conflicts was steadily dropping. The numbers
are still falling, and there is reason to think they will fall
further. A shift is under way, not strictly inevitable but
enormously powerful. After millennia of slaughter, humankind is
entering the Long Peace.

This has proved to be a popular message. The Harvard psychologist
and linguist [48]Steven Pinker's [49]The Better Angels of Our
Nature: a history of violence and humanity (2011) has not only been
an international bestseller - more than a thousand pages long and
containing a formidable array of graphs and statistics, the book has
established something akin to a contemporary orthodoxy. It is now
not uncommon to find it stated, as though it were a matter of fact,
that human beings are becoming less violent and more altruistic.
Ranging freely from human pre-history to the present day, Pinker
presents his case with voluminous erudition. Part of his argument
consists in showing that the past was more violent than we tend to
imagine. Tribal peoples that have been praised by anthropologists
for their peaceful ways, such as the Kalahari !Kung and the Arctic
Inuit, in fact have rates of death by violence not unlike those of
contemporary Detroit; while the risk of violent death in Europe is a
fraction of what it was five centuries ago. Not only have violent
deaths declined in number. Barbaric practices such as human
sacrifice and execution by torture have been abolished, while
cruelty towards women, children and animals is, Pinker claims, in
steady decline. This "civilising process" - a term Pinker borrows
from the sociologist Norbert Elias - has come about largely as a
result of the increasing power of the state, which in the most
advanced countries has secured a near-monopoly of force. Other
causes of the decline in violence include the invention of printing,
the empowerment of women, enhanced powers of reasoning and expanding
capacities for empathy in modern populations, and the growing
influence of Enlightenment ideals.

Pinker was not the first to promote this new orthodoxy. Co-authoring
an article with Pinker in the New York Times ([50]"War Really Is
Going Out of Style"), the scholar of international relations Joshua
L Goldstein presented a similar view in Winning the War on War: the
Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide (2011). Earlier, the political
scientist John E Mueller (whose work Pinker and Goldstein reference)
argued in Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War
(1989) that the institution of war was disappearing, with the civil
wars of recent times being more like conflicts among criminal gangs.
Pronounced in the summer of 1989 when liberal democracy seemed to be
triumphant, [51]Francis Fukuyama's declaration of [52]"the end of
history" - the disappearance of large-scale violent conflict between
rival political systems - was a version of the same message.

There is no reason for thinking human beings are becoming any
more altruistic or more peaceful

Another proponent of the Long Peace is the well-known utilitarian
philosopher [53]Peter Singer, who has praised The Better Angels of
Our Nature as "a supremely important book ... a masterly
achievement. Pinker convincingly demonstrates that there has been a
dramatic decline in violence, and he is persuasive about the causes
of that decline." In a forthcoming book, The Most Good You Can Do,
Singer describes altruism as "an emerging movement" with the
potential to fundamentally alter the way humans live.

Among the causes of the outbreak of altruism, Pinker and Singer
attach particular importance to the ascendancy of Enlightenment
thinking. Reviewing Pinker, Singer writes: "During the
Enlightenment, in 17th- and 18th-century Europe and countries under
European influence, an important change occurred. People began to
look askance at forms of violence that had previously been taken for
granted: slavery, torture, despotism, duelling and extreme forms of
punishment ... Pinker refers to this as 'the humanitarian
revolution'." Here too Pinker and Singer belong in a contemporary
orthodoxy. With other beliefs crumbling, many seek to return to what
they piously describe as "Enlightenment values". But these values
were not as unambiguously benign as is nowadays commonly supposed.
[54]John Locke denied America's indigenous peoples any legal claim
to the country's "wild woods and uncultivated wastes"; Voltaire
promoted the "pre-Adamite" theory of human development according to
which Jews were remnants of an earlier and inferior humanoid
species; Kant maintained that Africans were innately inclined to the
practice of slavery; the utilitarian [55]Jeremy Bentham developed
the project of an ideal penitentiary, the Panopticon, where inmates
would be kept in solitary confinement under constant surveillance.
None of these views is discussed by Singer or Pinker. More
generally, there is no mention of the powerful illiberal current in
Enlightenment thinking, expressed in the Jacobins and the
Bolsheviks, which advocated and practised methodical violence as a
means of improving society.
***
Like many others today, Pinker's response when confronted with such
evidence is to define the dark side of the Enlightenment out of
existence. How could a philosophy of reason and toleration be
implicated in mass murder? The cause can only be the sinister
influence of counter-Enlightenment ideas. Discussing the "Hemoclysm"
- the tide of 20th-century mass murder in which he includes the
Holocaust - Pinker writes: "There was a common denominator of
counter-Enlightenment utopianism behind the ideologies of nazism and
communism." You would never know, from reading Pinker, that Nazi
"scientific racism" was based in theories whose intellectual
pedigree goes back to Enlightenment thinkers such as the prominent
Victorian psychologist and eugenicist [56]Francis Galton. Such links
between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism are, for
Pinker, merely aberrations, distortions of a pristine teaching that
is innocent of any crime: the atrocities that have been carried out
in its name come from misinterpreting the true gospel, or its
corruption by alien influences. The childish simplicity of this way
of thinking is reminiscent of Christians who ask how a religion of
love could possibly be involved in the Inquisition. In each case it
is pointless to argue the point, since what is at stake is an
article of faith.

There is nothing new in the suggestion that war is disappearing
along with the "civilising process". The notion that the human
capacity for empathy is expanding alongside an increase of
rationality owes its wide influence to Auguste Comte, an almost
forgotten early-19th-century French Enlightenment thinker. Comte
founded the "religion of humanity", a secular creed based on the
most advanced "science" of the day - phrenology. While Pinker and
Singer don't discuss Comte, his ideas shape their way of thinking.
For one thing, Comte coined the term "altruism". Like Pinker and
Singer, he believed that humankind - or at any rate its most highly
developed portions - was becoming more selfless and beneficent. But
he was also a sharp critic of liberalism who believed the process
would end in an "organic" way of life - a "scientific" version of
the medieval social order that, despite his hostility to traditional
religion, he much admired. It was Comte's virulent anti-liberalism
that worried [61]John Stuart Mill, another Enlightenment thinker who
was in many other ways Comte's disciple. Mill went so far as to
suggest that the propagation of the species would in future become a
duty to humanity rather than a selfish pleasure; but he feared that
a world in which this was the case would be one without liberty or
individuality. Mill need not have worried. Human beings continue to
be capable of empathy, but there is no reason for thinking they are
becoming any more altruistic or more peaceful.

The picture of declining violence presented by this new orthodoxy is
not all it seems to be. As some critics, [62]notably John Arquilla,
have pointed out, it's a mistake to focus too heavily on declining
fatalities on the battlefield. If these deaths have been falling,
one reason is the balance of terror: nuclear weapons have so far
prevented industrial-style warfare between great powers. Pinker
dismisses the role of nuclear weapons on the grounds that the use of
other weapons of mass destruction such as poison gas has not
prevented war in the past; but nuclear bombs are incomparably more
destructive. No serious military historian doubts that fear of their
use has been a major factor in preventing conflict between great
powers. Moreover deaths of non-combatants have been steadily rising.
Around a million of the 10 million deaths due to the first world war
were of non-combatants, whereas around half of the more than
50 million casualties of the second world war and over 90% of the
millions who have perished in the violence that has wracked the
Congo for decades belong in that category.

If great powers have avoided direct armed conflict, they have fought
one another in many proxy wars. Neocolonial warfare in south-east
Asia, the Korean war and the Chinese invasion of Tibet, British
counter-insurgency warfare in Malaya and Kenya, the abortive
Franco-British invasion of Suez, the Angolan civil war, the Soviet
invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, the Vietnam
war, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf war, covert intervention in
the Balkans and the Caucasus, the invasion of Iraq, the use of
airpower in Libya, military aid to insurgents in Syria, Russian
cyber-attacks in the Baltic states and the proxy war between the
US and Russia that is being waged in Ukraine - these are only some
of the contexts in which great powers have been involved in
continuous warfare against each other while avoiding direct military
conflict.

'Tribal peoples who have been praised by anthropologists for their
peaceful ways, such as the Kalahari !Kung, in fact have rates of
death by violence not unlike those of contemporary Detroit.'

While it is true that war has changed, it has not become less
destructive. Rather than a contest between well-organised states
that can at some point negotiate peace, it is now more often a
many-sided conflict in fractured or collapsed states that no one has
the power to end. The protagonists are armed irregulars, some of
them killing and being killed for the sake of an idea or faith,
others from fear or a desire for revenge and yet others from the
world's swelling armies of mercenaries, who fight for profit. For
all of them, attacks on civilian populations have become normal. The
ferocious conflict in Syria, in which methodical starvation and the
systematic destruction of urban environments are deployed as
strategies, is an example of this type of warfare.

It may be true that the modern state's monopoly of force has led, in
some contexts, to declining rates of violent death. But it is also
true that the power of the modern state has been used for purposes
of mass killing, and one should not pass too quickly over victims of
state terror. With increasing historical knowledge it has become
clear that the "Holocaust-by-bullets" - the mass shootings of Jews,
mostly in the Soviet Union, during the second world war - was
perpetrated on an even larger scale than previously realised. Soviet
agricultural collectivisation incurred millions of foreseeable
deaths, mainly as a result of starvation, with deportation to
uninhabitable regions, life-threatening conditions in the Gulag and
military-style operations against recalcitrant villages also playing
an important role. Peacetime deaths due to internal repression under
the Mao regime have been estimated to be around 70 million. Along
with fatalities caused by state terror were unnumbered millions
whose lives were irreparably broken and shortened. How these
casualties fit into the scheme of declining violence is unclear.
Pinker goes so far as to suggest that the 20th-century Hemoclysm
might have been a gigantic statistical fluke, and cautions that any
history of the last century that represents it as having been
especially violent may be "apt to exaggerate the narrative coherence
of this history" (the italics are Pinker's). However, there is
an equal or greater risk in abandoning a coherent and truthful
narrative of the violence of the last century for the sake of
a spurious quantitative precision.

Estimating the numbers of those who die from violence involves
complex questions of cause and effect, which cannot always be
separated from moral judgments. There are many kinds of lethal force
that do not produce immediate death. Are those who die of hunger or
disease during war or its aftermath counted among the casualties? Do
refugees whose lives are cut short appear in the count? Where
torture is used in war, will its victims figure in the calculus if
they succumb years later from the physical and mental damage that
has been inflicted on them? Do infants who are born to brief and
painful lives as a result of exposure to Agent Orange or depleted
uranium find a place in the roll call of the dead? If women who have
been raped as part of a military strategy of sexual violence die
before their time, will their passing feature in the statistical
tables?

There is something repellently absurd in the notion that war is a
vice of 'backward' peoples

While the seeming exactitude of statistics may be compelling, much
of the human cost of war is incalculable. Deaths by violence are not
all equal. It is terrible to die as a conscript in the trenches or a
civilian in an aerial bombing campaign, but to perish from overwork,
beating or cold in a labour camp can be a greater evil. It is worse
still to be killed as part of a systematic campaign of extermination
as happened to those who were consigned to death camps such as
Treblinka. Disregarding these distinctions, the statistics presented
by those who celebrate the arrival of the Long Peace are morally
dubious if not meaningless.

The radically contingent nature of the figures is another reason for
not taking them too seriously. (For a critique of Pinker's
statistical methods, [67]see Nassim Nicholas Taleb's essay on the
Long Peace.) If the socialist revolutionary Fanya Kaplan had
succeeded in assassinating Lenin in August 1918, violence would
still have raged on in Russia. But the Soviet state might not have
survived and could not have been used by Stalin for slaughter on a
huge scale. If a resolute war leader had not unexpectedly come to
power in Britain in May 1940, and the country had been defeated or
(worse) made peace with Germany as much of the British elite wanted
at the time, Europe would likely have remained under Nazi rule for
generations to come - time in which plans of racial purification and
genocide could have been more fully implemented. Discussing the
Cuban missile crisis of 1962 in which nuclear war was narrowly
averted, Pinker dismisses the view that "the de-escalation was
purely a stroke of uncanny good luck". Instead, he explains the fact
that nuclear war was avoided by reference to the superior judgment
of Kennedy and Khrushchev, who had "an intuitive grasp of game
theory" - an example of increasing rationality in history, Pinker
believes. But a disastrous escalation in the crisis may in fact have
been prevented only by a Soviet submariner, [68]Vasili Arkhipov, who
refused to obey orders from his captain to launch a nuclear torpedo.
Had it not been for the accidental presence of a single courageous
human being, a nuclear conflagration could have occurred causing
fatalities on a vast scale.

There is something repellently absurd in the notion that war is a
vice of "backward" peoples. Destroying some of the most refined
civilisations that have ever existed, the wars that ravaged
south-east Asia in the second world war and the decades that
followed were the work of colonial powers. One of the causes of the
genocide in Rwanda was the segregation of the population by German
and Belgian imperialism. Unending war in the Congo has been fuelled
by western demand for the country's natural resources. If violence
has dwindled in advanced societies, one reason may be that they have
exported it.

Then again, the idea that violence is declining in the most highly
developed countries is questionable. Judged by accepted standards,
the United States is the most advanced society in the world.
According to many estimates [73]the US also has the highest rate of
incarceration, some way ahead of China and Russia, for example.
Around a quarter of all the world's prisoners are held in American
jails, many for exceptionally long periods. Black people are
disproportionately represented, many prisoners are mentally ill and
growing numbers are aged and infirm. Imprisonment in America
involves continuous risk of assault by other prisoners. There is the
threat of long periods spent in solitary confinement, sometimes (as
in "supermax" facilities, where something like Bentham's Panopticon
has been constructed) for indefinite periods - [74]a type of
treatment that has been reasonably classified as torture. Cruel and
unusual punishments involving flogging and mutilation may have been
abolished in many countries, but, along with unprecedented levels of
mass incarceration, the practice of torture seems to be integral to
the functioning of the world's most advanced state.

It may not be an accident that torture is often deployed in the
special operations that have replaced more traditional types of
warfare. The extension of counter-terrorism to include assassination
by unaccountable mercenaries and remote-controlled killing by drones
is part of this shift. A metamorphosis in the nature is war is under
way, which is global in reach. With the state of Iraq in ruins as a
result of US-led regime change, a third of the country is controlled
by Isis, which is able to inflict genocidal attacks on Yazidis and
wage a campaign of terror on Christians with near-impunity. In
Nigeria, the Islamist militias of Boko Haram practise a type of
warfare featuring mass killing of civilians, razing of towns and
villages and sexual enslavement of women and children. In Europe,
targeted killing of journalists, artists and Jews in Paris and
Copenhagen embodies a type of warfare that refuses to recognise any
distinction between combatants and civilians. Whether they accept
the fact or not, advanced societies have become terrains of violent
conflict. Rather than war declining, the difference between peace
and war has been fatally blurred.

Deaths on the battlefield have fallen and may continue to fall. From
one angle this can be seen as an advancing condition of peace. From
another point of view that looks at the variety and intensity with
which violence is being employed, the Long Peace can be described as
a condition of perpetual conflict.

***

Certainly the figures used by Pinker and others are murky, leaving a
vast range of casualties of violence unaccounted for. But the value
of these numbers for such thinkers comes from their very opacity.
Like the obsidian mirrors made by the Aztecs for purposes
of divination, these rows of graphs and numbers contain nebulous
images of the future - visions that by their very indistinctness can
give comfort to believers in human improvement.

Plundered and brought to Europe after the Aztecs were conquered and
destroyed by the Spaniards, one of these mirrors was used as a
"scrying-glass" by the mathematician, navigator, magician and
intelligence gatherer [79]Dr John Dee. Described by Queen Elizabeth
as "my philosopher", Dee acted as a court adviser on the basis of
his reputed possession of occult powers. Working with a "scryer" or
medium, he claimed to discern "angels" pointing to letters and
symbols, which he then transcribed. According to Dee, the archangel
Michael appeared in one of these scrying sessions bearing a message
about an ever closer relationship between divine and earthly powers.
Commanding Dee to record what he was about to see, the angel
produced some elaborate tables, which together constituted a
revelation of a coming global order based on godly principles.

The divination Dee practised was of a distinctively modern kind.
More than most at the time, he understood that the effect of the
scientific revolution would be to displace humankind from the centre
of things. Like many during the Renaissance - a period in history
defined as much by the rise of magic as by that of science - Dee
needed reassurance as to the importance of human action. Offering a
vision of the future in their tables of figures, the "angels"
confirmed that humans still had a central position in the cosmos.

More than four centuries later, there are many who need to be
reassured of their significance in the world. The Elizabethans found
in divination support for their belief that history contained a
hidden design that would culminate in a new world order. Obeying the
same need for meaning, modern thinkers look to numbers for signs
that show the emergence of a world founded on rational and moral
principles. They believe that improvement in ethics and politics is
incremental and accretive: one advance is followed by another in a
process that stabilises and strengthens the advances that have
already taken place. Now and then regress may occur, but when this
happens it does so against a background in which the greater part of
what has been achieved so far does not pass away. Slowly, over time,
the world is becoming a better place.

The ancient world, along with all the major religions and pre-modern
philosophies, had a different and truer view. Improvements in
civilisation are real enough, but they come and go. While knowledge
and invention may grow cumulatively and at an accelerating rate,
advances in ethics and politics are erratic, discontinuous and
easily lost. Amid the general drift, cycles can be discerned: peace
and freedom alternate with war and tyranny, eras of increasing
wealth with periods of economic collapse. Instead of becoming
ever stronger and more widely spread, civilisation remains
inherently fragile and regularly succumbs to barbarism. This view,
which was taken for granted until sometime in the mid-18th century,
is so threatening to modern hopes that it is now practically
incomprehensible.

Unable to tolerate the prospect that the cycles of conflict will
continue, many are anxious to find continuing improvement in the
human lot. Who can fail to sympathise with them? Lacking any deeper
faith and incapable of living with doubt, it is only natural that
believers in reason should turn to the sorcery of numbers. How else
can they find meaning in their lives? Happily, there are some among
us who are ready to assist in the quest. Just as the Elizabethan
magus transcribed tables shown to them by angels, the modern
scientific scryer deciphers numerical auguries of angels hidden in
ourselves.

To give succour to the spiritually needy is a worthy vocation. No
one can deny the humanistic passion and intellectual ingenuity that
have gone into the effort. Still, there is always room for
improvement. Whether they are printed on paper or filed on an
e-reader, books do not provide what is now most needed: an instantly
available sensation of newly created meaning. It is only modern
inventions that can meet modern needs. At the same time, inspiration
can be found in more primitive technologies.

A revolving metal cylinder containing a sacred text, the Tibetan
prayer wheel is set in motion by the turn of a human hand. The
result is an automated form of prayer, which the votary believes may
secure good fortune and the prospect of liberation from the round of
birth and death. The belief system that the prayer wheel serves may
possess a certain archaic charm, with its sacred texts displaying a
dialectical subtlety not often found in western philosophy. Still,
it will be self-evident to any modern mind that the device is
thoroughly unscientific. How much better to fashion a high-tech
prayer wheel - an electronic tablet containing inspirational
statistics on the progress of humankind, powered by algorithms that
show this progress to be ongoing.

Unlike the old-fashioned prayer wheel, the device would be based on
the latest scientific knowledge. Programmed to collect and process
big data, it would have the ability to deliver statistics that never
fail to show long-term improvement in the human condition. If
regress of any kind was happening, it would appear as a temporary
pause in the forward march of the species. In order to ward off
moods of doubt - to which even the most convinced believers in
improvement are occasionally prone - the device would broadcast
sound versions of the uplifting statistics. Best of all, the device
would be designed to be worn at all times.

It would not be the first time that science has been used to bolster
faith in the future. Nineteenth-century disciples of Comte's
religion of humanity practised a daily ritual in which they tapped
the parts of their heads that according to phrenology embodied the
impulses of altruism and progress. In order that they would never
forget the importance of cooperation, they were instructed to wear
specially designed clothing with buttons down the back that could be
accessed only with the help of other people. Twenty-first century
believers in human improvement can surely find a better way to
practise their faith. Reciting out loud numbers broadcast by their
amulets, they can exorcise any disturbing thoughts from their minds.
For so long shrouded in myth and superstition, meaning in life can
at last be produced by modern methods.

There may be some who object that meaning cannot be manufactured in
this way. It reveals itself in hints and intimations, these
reactionaries will say - the shadow that reminds of mortality; the
sudden vista that reveals an unimagined loveliness; the brief glance
that opens a new page. Such objections will count for nothing. The
advance of knowledge cannot be halted any more than the pursuit of
human betterment can be permanently thwarted. Responding to the
creative incentives of an unfettered marketplace, a state-of-the-art
tablet generating meaning from numbers will soon render the prayer
wheels of the past obsolete.

o John Gray's [84]The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into
Human Freedom is published by Allen Lane. [85]John Gray will be in
conversation with Will Self at Islington Assembly Hall, London N1 on
18 March. Tickets £15.

References

41. http://www.theguardian.com/profile/johngray
48. http://www.theguardian.com/profile/steven-pinker
49. http://bookshop.theguardian.com/better-angels-of-our-nature.html
50.
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/opinion/sunday/war-really-is-going-out-of-style.html
51. http://www.theguardian.com/books/francis-fukuyama
52.
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/21/bring-back-ideology-fukuyama-end-history-25-years-on
53. http://www.theguardian.com/profile/petersinger
54. http://www.theguardian.com/books/john-locke
55. http:///
56. http://www.theguardian.com/life/opinion/story/0,,1275964,00.html
61. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/dec/23/biography.features
62. http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/12/03/the-big-kill/
67. http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pinker.pdf
68.
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/27/vasili-arkhipov-stopped-nuclear-war
73. http://www.prisonstudies.org/highest-to-lowest/prison-population-total
74.
http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/01/guantanamo-bay-solitary-confinement
79.
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/mar/09/conjuror-john-dee-glyn-parry-review
84. http://bookshop.theguardian.com/soul-of-the-marionette.html
85.
https://membership.theguardian.com/event/guardian-live-john-gray-and-will-self-is-free-will-an-illusion-15006844877?CMP=ppc_mem_518

[tt] WaPo: George P. Shultz: A Reagan approach to climate change

George P. Shultz: A Reagan approach to climate change
http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-reagan-model-on-climate-change/2015/03/13/4f4182e2-c6a8-11e4-b2a1-bed1aaea2816_story.html

George P. Shultz was secretary of state from 1982 to 1989.
[When he was secretary of state, he appeared on a list of the Five Men Who
Rule the World.]

The trend of disappearing summer sea ice in the Arctic is clear even
though there is always some variability from year to year. Severe
winter weather underscores the importance of keeping track of
significant trends. Here are the numbers, according to Julienne
Stroeve, of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo.,
as reported in the Economist in February:

"Between 1953 and 2014, the average area of the Arctic sea ice
shrank by 48,000 square kilometers a year."

"Between 1979 and 2014, it shrank by 87,000 square kilometers a
year."

"Between 1996 and 2014, the rate rose to 148,000 square kilometers."

The accelerating rate is explained in part by the fact that ice
reflects sunlight but water, which is darker, absorbs it. So as
water replaces ice, more heat is retained. Heat transported from
lower latitudes could also be part of the explanation.

The picture in Greenland is more complicated, but it is important in
the long run. Arctic ice is already in the water, so melting there
won't make much of an impact on sea levels. Greenland, though, is
home to the world's second-largest land ice mass. Two satellites
measure annual melting in Greenland; over the past two decades its
net ice loss has been about 140 billion tons per year, and that rate
has almost doubled in more recent years. The story is similar in
West Antarctica, where surface geography makes it easier for large
segments of its ice sheet to slide into a warming ocean. Altogether,
we can observe that sea levels are now rising about 3 millimeters
per year. We can also observe that the last time the earth warmed by
a few degrees--120,000 years ago--sea levels were at least 5
meters higher than today.

Temperatures vary. You may have read about a global "stall" in
temperature increase over the past decade, despite carbon dioxide
levels rising at about 0.5 percent each year. Here again, though,
trends tell the bigger story. Since humans started to produce more
CO2 in the late 1800s, we know that overall land and ocean
temperatures have increased about 1 degree Celsius, and in
Antarctica, teams examining the world's oldest ice cores recently
released their findings of 800,000 years of climate history. "Even
when our climate was in some other phase, some different way of
balancing the many subtle influences that make up the wind and
weather and warmth we experience, temperature and greenhouse gases
still marched in lockstep," wrote Gabrielle Walker in her book
"Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent."
"Higher temperature always went with higher CO2. Lower temperature
went with lower CO2."

These are simple and clear observations, so I conclude that the
globe is warming and that carbon dioxide has something to do with
that fact. Those who say otherwise will wind up being mugged by
reality.

I am also impressed by an experience I had in the mid-1980s. Many
scientists thought the ozone layer was shrinking. There were
doubters, but everyone agreed that if it happened, the result would
be a catastrophe. Under these circumstances, President Ronald Reagan
thought it best not to argue too much with the doubters but include
them in the provision of an insurance policy. With the very real
potential for serious harm, U.S. industry turned on its
entrepreneurial juices, and the Du Pont company developed a set of
replacements for the chemicals implicated in the problem along a
reasonable time frame and at a reasonable cost. It came up with
something that could be done then--not some aspirational plan for
2050. Action is better than aspiration. As matters turned out, the
action worked and became the basis for the Montreal Protocol, widely
regarded as the world's most successful environmental treaty. In
retrospect, the scientists who were worried were right, and the
Montreal Protocol came along in the nick of time. Reagan called it a
"magnificent achievement."

We all know there are those who have doubts about the problems
presented by climate change. But if these doubters are wrong, the
evidence is clear that the consequences, while varied, will be
mostly bad, some catastrophic. So why don't we follow Reagan's
example and take out an insurance policy?

First, let's have significant and sustained support for energy
research and development. More of that is going on right now than in
any previous period. The costs to the federal budget are small--
little more than a rounding error--and a serious government effort
would attract private capital from investors who want to know what's
new and want to contribute. These efforts are producing results. For
example, we can now produce electricity from the wind and the sun at
close to the same price we pay for electricity from other sources,
and we may soon know how to do cost-effective large-scale storage of
electricity, thus greatly reducing the intermittency problems of
solar and wind and producing a hedge against the great vulnerability
of our power grid.

Second, let's level the playing field for competing sources of
energy so that costs imposed on the community are borne by the
sources of energy that create them, most particularly carbon
dioxide. A carbon tax, starting small and escalating to a
significant level on a legislated schedule, would do the trick. I
would make it revenue-neutral, returning all net funds generated to
the taxpayers so that no fiscal drag results and the revenue would
not be available for politicians to spend on pet projects.

These two policies could be put in place in conjunction with
eliminating burdensome existing laws and regulations and using the
marketplace rather than edicts by the government to do this or not
do that. Put a price out there, and let the marketplace adapt. You
would be surprised at its creativity.

So that is my proposal. Before you get mugged by reality, take out
an insurance policy. It's the Reagan way.
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[tt] NS 3010: Birth of a Theorem: Mathematics, Boltzmann and brio

NS 3010: Birth of a Theorem: Mathematics, Boltzmann and brio
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22530101.000-birth-of-a-theorem-mathematics-boltzmann-and-brio.html
* 03 March 2015 by Jacob Aron

* Book information
* Birth of a Theorem: A mathematical adventure by Cédric Villani
* Published by: Random House
* Price: £18.99

Birth of a Theorem: A mathematical adventure by Fields medallist
Cédric Villani is an exhilarating but exhausting journey as he pours
you into his mind

I MET Cédric Villani when he visited London in 2011, a year after he
had won the Fields medal, the prestigious mathematical prize awarded
to researchers under the age of 40.

As we chatted, I was charmed by the French mathematician's
rapid-fire way of speaking, a staccato rhythm that jumped from topic
to topic without pausing for breath.

Reading his new book, Birth of a Theorem, I instantly recognised
that same rhythm. The book covers the few years leading up to his
Fields medal win, giving a flavour of the frantic thought processes
behind the work that ultimately won him the prize.

The book opens like a film noir, as Villani sits sprawling in his
office with intellectual partner Clément Mouhot. The pair are
wrestling with a tricky case - not a murder, but the intricate
properties of the Boltzmann equation, a statistical description of
how particles in a gas behave.

In a tumble of dialogue they bat about phrases like "modulo minimal
regularity bounds" and "Moser-style iteration scheme" - essentially
incomprehensible to the average reader, but they sweep you along for
the ride.

Initially, it's a refreshing alternative to most pop-maths books,
which understandably make every effort to hold your hand as they
guide you through tricky concepts. Instead, Villani pours you inside
his mind and swirls you around, leaving you with nothing to hold on
to and breathlessly wondering what you'll encounter next.

Villani's diary of trips around the world to lecture and research is
interspersed with verbatim emails between himself and Mouhot as they
attack the problem of Landau damping, a nuance of how waves
propagate through a Boltzmann-described gas. It's interesting to see
them at work, even firing off emails on Christmas day, but the text
is littered with TeX, a markup language mathematicians use for
typesetting equations, which makes it a bit like reading the code of
an arcane computer program.

Reams of dense equations pasted in from various academic papers
aren't much better, since it's impossible to follow the logic at
work without a fairly high level of mathematical training. I ended
up just idly flicking through them, wondering if Villani had ever
heard Stephen Hawking's quip from the intro of A Brief History of
Time about every equation halving a book's sales.

Passages about Villani's personal life, like missing French bread
and cheese during a stay at Princeton University, are more
relatable, but nothing out of the ordinary. Extensive lists of his
favourite music and lengthy descriptions of his dreams are as
interesting as they sound.

Then there are quotes from poems, song lyrics and Neil Gaiman
stories which hint at the varied sources of mathematical
inspiration, but it's never quite clear how they connect with
Villani's thinking about his research - though with his giant cravat
and ever-present spider brooch, Villani himself could have stepped
out of a Gaiman novel.

When I met Villani, he told me how most journalists would ask him to
do quick mental arithmetic, as if this was all a professional
mathematician really did all day. I'd hoped to get a deeper
understanding of his work from reading the book, but perhaps that
was never the goal.

As a note from the translator says, the book is meant to be an
"imprecise recollection", "a work of literary imagination" and not
"a scientific treatise", and it delivers exactly on this promise. I
felt like a passenger inside Villani's head, bombarded by his every
thought, both waking and unconscious. Unfortunately, I tired of the
ride before I reached the end.