Archives for March 2013

Benn Steil talks about Cyprus Bailout

Benn Steil, author of The Battle of Bretton Woods, appeared on CNBC TV’s  Kudlow Report to talk about the Cyprus bailout and what the U.S can learn from it.

LA Times Article with Tim Chartier

Davidson math professor, PUP author and bracketology expert, Tim Chartier, discusses the math behind March Madness with the LA Times.

chartierMathematician Tim Chartier has the best job on Earth once a year: when the NCAA men’s basketball tournament begins, so does March Mathness.

His telephone rings, he’s on the radio, he’s talking to ESPN, and for once he can explain what exactly he does for a living at North Carolina’s Davidson College.

“For the first time in my life I can talk about what I’m doing, on a higher level, and people understand,” Chartier said.

What Chartier does is use complex math to win the Final Four pool on a regular basis. How regular a basis? He’s been in the top 3%  of the 4 million submissions to ESPN’s March Madness tournament challenge, which is arguably the major league of sports prognostication.

“That’s when we said, whoa, this thing really works,” Chartier said of his brush with sports handicapping superstardom.

Blame it on tiny Butler College. Chartier’s math class was among those to recognize that fifth-seeded Butler was destined for the finals in 2010. That was the second year Chartier started making bracketology — the art and science of picking winners among 68 teams in a single-elimination tournament — part of his syllabus. That’s right: take Chartier’s course and you’ll be deep into basketball come March.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “March Madness puts Davidson math professor in a bracket of his own”


Skipping to the good stuff — who is going to win March Madness this year? At least according to the math?

So, who did Chartier pick? With a simplified Massey method (which gives his students a fighting chance), he agrees with Dick Vitale: Louisville wins it all, in this case beating Florida, then Indiana, which beats Gonzaga.

By the Colley method, the Final Four are Duke, Kansas, New Mexico and Miami, with New Mexico winning.

Which system will do the best?

“That’s the madness for us in the math!” Chartier said.


Read the complete article here:

The Fungus Among Us

Helvella crispa


Although Helvella crispa is technically a cup fungi, it wouldn’t be out of place in a collection of marble sculpture. In spite of their name, cup fungi are not all disk- or cup-shaped. The cup refers to the fact that they have open fruiting bodies which allow them to shoot spores freely into the air. In the case of this particular specimen, the hymenium (the area containing the asci that then shoot the spores into the air — aka the cup) can be folded atop of a stem.

Learn more about fungi with The Kingdom of Fungi:

PUP Books on any Hogwarts Student’s Book list

Becoming a wizard in the Harry Potter series was not all fun and games. In fact it was more like life or death for Harry and the gang. I wanted to go to Hogwarts like every other kid and the closest any of us will ever get to that is by reading the books, watching the movies, and visiting the theme park in Florida (which I am doing this summer- can’t wait!). Another way to learn like a wizard is to read like a Hogwarts student.

Bloggers on Measure of Doubt ponder what kind of books would make up the average wizard student’s required book list. They propose that “Ravenclaws would be interested in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and mathematics; Gryffindors in combat, ethics, and democracy; Slytherins in persuasion, rhetoric, and political machination; and Hufflepuffs in productivity, happiness, and the game theory of cooperation.” While Hogwarts students saved the wizarding and muggle world, they were students after all and would have had to do plenty of reading.

Two of PUP’s books made the list for Hogwarts students on Measure of Doubt’s post.

The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits is assigned to Slytherin.

3-27 virtues of vicesAre there times when it’s right to be rude? Can we distinguish between good and bad gossip? Am I a snob if I think that NPR listeners are likely to be better informed than devotees of Fox News? Does sick humor do anyone any good? Can I think your beliefs are absurd but still respect you?

In The Virtues of Our Vices, philosopher Emrys Westacott takes a fresh look at important everyday ethical questions–and comes up with surprising answers. He makes a compelling argument that some of our most common vices–rudeness, gossip, snobbery, tasteless humor, and disrespect for others’ beliefs–often have hidden virtues or serve unappreciated but valuable purposes. For instance, there are times when rudeness may be necessary to help someone with a problem or to convey an important message. Gossip can foster intimacy between friends and curb abuses of power. And dubious humor can alleviate existential anxieties.


Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind is required reading for Hufflepuffs.

3-27 hypocriteWe’re all hypocrites. Why? Hypocrisy is the natural state of the human mind.

Robert Kurzban shows us that the key to understanding our behavioral inconsistencies lies in understanding the mind’s design. The human mind consists of many specialized units designed by the process of evolution by natural selection. While these modules sometimes work together seamlessly, they don’t always, resulting in impossibly contradictory beliefs, vacillations between patience and impulsiveness, violations of our supposed moral principles, and overinflated views of ourselves.

This modular, evolutionary psychological view of the mind undermines deeply held intuitions about ourselves, as well as a range of scientific theories that require a “self” with consistent beliefs and preferences. Modularity suggests that there is no “I.” Instead, each of us is a contentious “we”–a collection of discrete but interacting systems whose constant conflicts shape our interactions with one another and our experience of the world.

What other PUP books would make it onto the book list for prospective Gryffindors, Slytherins, Ravenclaws, and Hufflepuffs? Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll roll out some of this spring’s book that would surely be on Hogwarts students’ book list for the semester! Keep coming back to see which house you belong in and what books are on your reading list.

Who’s #1? Kyle Snipes’ bracket after the Round of 32

After the Round of 32, Kyle Snipes was #1 on our leaderboard. Below he gives us an update on his bracket.

SnipesAs the scores continued to roll in Friday and Saturday afternoon, I was left echoing the words of many bracketologists around the country- “Dang, thanks to ___________, my bracket is totally busted!” For me, FGCU, Oregon, and Ole Miss dealt the harshest blows. When the second round was said and done, my mathematical methods had correctly predicted 2 of the 10 first round upsets (lower seed over higher seed) while incorrectly predicting victories by Missouri and St. Mary’s over their higher seeded opponents. Once the madness of the first weekend had subsided, however, I came out looking relatively strong. As of the first weekend of the tournament, my best bracket (based on the Massey method) was sitting at the 97.2 percentile in ESPN’s nationwide pool.

While my method was unable to recognize strong teams on the lower seed lines, it did a great job of telling me which teams were strong out of the teams that everyone thought would be strong (with the exception of Gonzaga). Looking forward, I still have 7 out of 8 teams remaining in the Elite Eight, and 3 out of 4 Final Fours teams, including my National Championship participants. I’m excited to see if my bracket is able to remain near the top as the tournament plays itself, but more importantly, I’m ready for some more March Madness!

Q&A with Benn Steil, author of ‘The Battle of Bretton Woods’

The Globe and Mail interviewed Benn Steil, author of The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order, to find out what the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement to recognize the U.S dollar as the central means of exchange and to back the U.S dollar with gold can teach to policy makers today amidst the global financial turmoil.

Is the “currency war” metaphor useful in today’s context? You wrote of a time when countries were making a point of devaluing their currencies. That’s not technically happening now.

The situation in the 1930s was far more serious than what we are witnessing today. Remember, in the early 1930s the world was still on the fraying remnants of the gold-exchange standard. Fixed exchange rates were still considered to be the norm. So as one country after another dropped out of that system, it was never clear to anyone where the bottom was.

Since everyone was unmooring from gold and the dollar at the same time, nobody was ultimately able to use competitive devaluation as a tool for increasing net exports. So what did they do? They turned to the next step, which was systematic protectionism. And that’s what led to the collapse of global trade.

We’re not seeing anything of the sort, yet, going on around the world. We are just seeing concern, rightful concern, expressed about where these unusual forms of monetary accommodation will lead down the road. There are reasons to be concerned. If countries are determined to devalue their currencies and can’t because others are pursuing the same policies, then they may turn to trade measures as the next logical step. But we are quite a ways away from that.

How would describe what we’re witnessing in currency markets?

I would say we are in an age of improvisation. Before the crisis, we were in a period that Ben Bernanke coined as the `Great Moderation.’ It seemed that for all intents and purposes central bankers had discovered the Holy Grail. You just target a low and stable rate of inflation and if you stick with that course you will have accomplished all that a good central bank can do, at least in normal circumstances. Unfortunately, now that we are not in normal circumstances, the rule books have been ditched and nobody knows what the rule book is.

Can a broad commitment to flexible exchange rates work as an international monetary system?

In the 1930s, nobody really considered that to be a system. Flexible exchange rates were considered to be a failure of alternative systems, like the gold standard, like the gold-exchange standard, or like the dollar-based gold exchange standard that was agreed at Bretton Woods. In the early 1970s, when we moved to that system (of flexible exchange rates), although it did have some prominent supporters like Milton Freidman, this was not a policy decision as it were, that the world took to move from a system of fixed, but adjustable, exchange rates to a new system of flexible exchange rates. It was something that was forced on the world by the failure of the Bretton Woods monetary system…I really don’t believe the (Group of 20) as an institution has in any sense coalesced around what might be an appropriate mix of policies for the world’s major countries from the perspective of global stability and global growth. There really is no consensus.

Do you see a day when there might be a return to a stricter global monetary system?

I don’t.

In the 1940s, there was a deal to be struck between the U.S. and the world. The U.S. really was the world’s only credible international creditor. The only way you could trade internationally other than barter was with gold and dollars. Both were in very short supply in the 1940s, so the U.S. offered the world a deal: We will provide you with short-term balance of payments assistance through our new International Monetary Fund, in return for which you pledge not to devalue your currency without the acquiescence of this new fund, which of course would be American dominated. The world wasn’t wild about the deal, but it was the best on offer…

Compare that to the situation between China and the United States today. The U.S. now is the world’s largest international debtor; China is the world’s largest international creditor. Chinese holdings of dollar-denominated securities amounts to $1,000 (U.S.) per Chinese resident. If China were to provoke a dollar crisis by trying to nudge the world to an alternative monetary system in which the dollar was not central, China would risk a collapse of the purchasing power of its vast hoard of dollar-denominated assets. The U.S. for its part sees little motivation to change this system. It still raises debt in a currency that it mints…There isn’t the political basis for a deal to be struck between China and the United States right now. I don’t any new Bretton Woods emerging out this situation. I can see circumstances under which this system collapses.

Read the full interview here.

Princeton Students Learn Magical Math

I had a friend who used to always do the whole “Pick a card, any card” charade and flip through every card until he got to the right one, at which he point he flamboyantly touted “I knew it all along!” Maybe if he took this freshman seminar course here at Princeton, he would have actually known it all along.

A freshman seminar course “The Mathematics of Magic Tricks and Games” teaches its students the magic behind tricks like the one my friend so desperately tried to get right. Students learn the mathematical principles behind games and magic tricks in this class giving math a fun and engaging application. Princeton mathematics professor Manjul Bhargava employs Magical Mathematics: The Mathematical Ideas That Animate Great Magic Tricks to teach his students how to do fun magic tricks.

Bhargava actually studied with Persi Diaconis who is one of the co-authors of the book and is also a professor of mathematics and professional magician. Bhargava’s course is designed to show freshman students the creative and artistic side of mathematics that they would probably not see in any of their past high school geometry or calculus classes.

Magical Mathematics can teach you some tricks that Bhargava teaches in his classes. Not only will you enjoy doing math, but it will make also give you fun tricks to show your friends.

Also, if you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in The Ultimate Book of Saturday Science which gives various fun and astounding backyard science experiments.

The Fungus Among Us

Exidia plana, Denmark

Have you seen this gooey, gel-like fungus on your hikes? It turns out, it is a jelly fungi called Exidia plana.

Jelly fungi are often parasitic and their gooey bodies serve an important function. Deep inside the gelatinous fruiting body, there are “strange” basidia shaped like tuning forks or possessing transverse or longitudinal cell walls. Because they are hidden away this way, they are highly resistant to drought. Although I picked this globular example, there is actually quite a bit of variety among jelly fungi and they can mimic the shapes of tooth fungi, coral fungi and club fungi.

Learn more with The Kingdom of Fungi by Jens H. Petersen:


Birdchick posts the winning Crossley-style photoshop photo

Last week, Birdchick posed a challenge to her readers — “Take the Northern Goshawk plate from The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors, Photoshop yourself into it, and make it your own.” She has just announced the winning plate:


Birdchick has several honorable mentions up at her site, so check them all out. This is my personal favorite:


Love seeing all this creativity!

Planck Satellite Mission sheds light on the Universe’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

The universe just got 100 million years older. The Planck satellite mission recently revealed detailed maps showing that the universe is about 13.8 billion years old through examining light fossils and sound echoes from the Big Bang by looking at background radiation. Not only did the images show how old our universe is, but it also revealed important new developments in dark energy and dark matter research.

Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe explains dark matter and dark energy’s key importance in the universe’s growth. The Planck satellite’s findings showed that there is less dark energy and more dark matter than scientists figured. Instead of 71.4% of the universe being composed of dark energy- the force that seems to be pushing space apart, it is now 68.3%. Additionally, the Hubble Constant, which characterizes the rate of the universe’s expansion, is slightly slower than previously thought. The amount of dark matter- the force that pulls galaxies together, also increased from 21.9% to 26.8%.

3-27 planck-cosmic-microwave-background-map

First image of the oldest light in our universe. Image via

Coauthors Jeremiah Ostriker and Simon Mitton praised the Planck mission with Ostriker commenting, “The age, content, and structure of the early universe is exquisitely revealed in the Planck data. The results confirm that the fundamental properties of our universe can be described by a simple model of the universe, known as the standard model of cosmology. That is a great achievement.”

Another notable contribution of the Planck mission was that the images also support the inflation theory, which scientists came up with around 1980. This theory says that the universe expanded extremely rapidly within the first few moments of the Big Bang.

The deepest darkest secrets of the universe became less deep and dark- but as Ostriker and Mitton say, this cosmological narrative is far from complete.

Heart of Darkness coverHeart of Darkness describes the incredible saga of humankind’s quest to unravel the deepest secrets of the universe. Over the past thirty years, scientists have learned that two little-understood components–dark matter and dark energy–comprise most of the known cosmos, explain the growth of all cosmic structure, and hold the key to the universe’s fate. The story of how evidence for the so-called “Lambda-Cold Dark Matter” model of cosmology has been gathered by generations of scientists throughout the world is told here by one of the pioneers of the field, Jeremiah Ostriker, and his coauthor Simon Mitton.

From humankind’s early attempts to comprehend Earth’s place in the solar system, to astronomers’ exploration of the Milky Way galaxy and the realm of the nebulae beyond, to the detection of the primordial fluctuations of energy from which all subsequent structure developed, this book explains the physics and the history of how the current model of our universe arose and has passed every test hurled at it by the skeptics. Throughout this rich story, an essential theme is emphasized: how three aspects of rational inquiry–the application of direct measurement and observation, the introduction of mathematical modeling, and the requirement that hypotheses should be testable and verifiable–guide scientific progress and underpin our modern cosmological paradigm.

Wildflower Wednesday returns!

It’s officially spring and soon we’ll all be inundated with wildflowers. Happily we have an expert on hand to provide tips and information–Carol Gracie, author of Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast.

 generated by the spadix of skunk cabbage and absorbed by its dark spathe helps to melt the surrounding snow in mid-February.jpg

Skunk Cabbage – Our earliest-blooming spring wildflower doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

Although it may not conform to our stereotypical image of a delicate, pastel-colored spring wildflower, skunk cabbage is a true native wildflower that should be appreciated for brightening our swamps in early spring with both its color and sensuous form, as well as admired for its hardiness. Skunk cabbage not only grows in a difficult habitat—dark, cold swamps—but flowers at a time of year when other plants have not dared to show even the tips of their leaves. In fact, skunk cabbage often begins flowering in mid-February, over a month before the official spring equinox.

The adaptations that skunk cabbage has evolved to survive in these harsh conditions are quite remarkable. Skunk cabbage plants are anchored in the wet, spongy soil by masses of long, tenacious roots that actually expand and contract to hold the plant more securely in the ground, and the flowering structure (the spadix) is actually capable of generating its own heat through the process of respiration. It can maintain a temperature of 68 degrees F even when the ambient temperature is below freezing. The heat is conserved by the thick insulation of the enclosing hood (the spathe) thus hastening the melting of snow surrounding the plant.

Princeton astrophysicist Jeremiah Ostriker to discuss HEART OF DARKNESS: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe tomorrow evening at Labyrinth Books in Princeton at 6:00 PM

If you happen to be in the Princeton, NJ, area tomorrow evening come out to hear Princeton astrophysicist Jeremiah Ostriker discuss his new book HEART OF DARKNESS: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe with science writer Michael Lemonick tomorrow evening, March 27, at 6:00 PM at Labyrinth Books.