Paul P. Mealing

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Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Political Irony

There’s a strange phenomenon happening worldwide (in the Western world, at least) whereby centrist politics is not working, or should I say: not winning. Politics naturally divides itself into 2 because the population naturally divides itself into 2: right leaning and left leaning, though there’s a broad spectrum.

There is evidence that our genetic makeup contributes to which way we lean, possibly even more than environmental factors, which would explain why there seems to be roughly an even divide and why almost all societies seem to be split between the two. It comes down to personality traits as I’ve discussed once before, albeit a long time ago. Basically, conservatives are more conscientious, arguably less impulsive and more resistant to change. I know that’s being a bit stereotypical but studies pretty well support that view. Liberal-minded individuals are more open to change and diverse ideas. The thing is that it would seem functional societies need both types: people to challenge the status quo and people to maintain the status quo.

But recent events in Britain, America, parts of Europe, and here in Australia, indicate that politics is becoming more polarised, virtually worldwide, with people on both sides of the political divide becoming disenchanted with the status quo. The status quo has been to go for the centre in order to grab the highest number of people on both sides, but we’ve seen a clear desertion of the centre when it comes to polling and actual elections.

I’m not an economist or a political commentator, but I am a participant in the process and an observer. I should say at the outset, something that I don’t hide, which is my political leanings are definitely towards the left, so that will have a subjective influence on my particular interpretation of events.

I don’t believe that there is a single factor, but a confluence of factors, some of which I’ll try and elaborate on. However, I think that we are going through a socio-economic change not unlike the one that must have been experienced during the industrial revolution, only this time it’s a technological revolution caused by automation. Basically, automation is putting people out of jobs in the Western world, and I would suggest that this is only the beginning. I know this, partly because I work in the industry where it’s taking place: industrial engineering. But I can remember Barry Jones, Australia’s first science minister, foretelling this coming ‘revolution’ some 30 or more years ago. Barry Jones was most unusual in that he was probably more scientist than politician; certainly, he was a scholar of the highest calibre, which made him something of an oddity in politics.

I would argue that our economic paradigms are yet to catch up with what’s happening in the workplace, not that I’m claiming to have any solutions. But if things stay as they are then the divide between those with jobs and those without is going to become greater as technological advances in robotics and data management become more ubiquitous. So what about all the jobs going offshore? Yes, cheap labour is being exploited in countries with lax OHS regulations and where the cost of living is cheap. But, despite what Donald Trump told his voters, manufacturing has increased in America, not decreased (over the last decade) while unemployment has gone up. How do I know this? Chas Licciardello, the nerd on Planet America showed the graphics on one of the shows he co-hosted with John Barron, explaining that this was due to automation and not offshore labour, otherwise the manufacturing graphic would have declined with the employment graphic.

But, as I alluded to earlier in my discourse, there are other factors involved, not least the still lingering effects of the GFC (Global Financial Crisis), which, need I remind anyone, actually started in America with the sub-prime mortgage debacle. So that also had its biggest impact on the least affluent in society, or most economically vulnerable, and they are the ones who are having the biggest say in our collective democracies. We should not be surprised that they feel betrayed by the political system and that they want to turn back the clock to a time when jobs weren’t so scarce and they weren’t at the mercy of the banks.

Someone once said (no idea who it was) that when times get tough, economically, societies have a tendency to turn against their fellows. People look for someone to blame and we have witch-hunts (which actually were the consequence of dire circumstances in medieval times). One only has to look at pre-war Europe when Jews were demonised and blamed for everyone else’s economic plight. John Maynard Keynes warned after the armistice deal at the end of World War 1, that it would bankrupt Germany and start another war, which, of course, we now all know it did.

And now we are in similar, if not exactly the same, circumstances where an election candidate can gain substantial ‘populist’ votes for promising to stop immigrants from taking our jobs and undermining our society with un-Western cultural mores. Protectionism and isolationism is suddenly attractive when globalism has never been more lucrative. And it is the right wing of politics, and often, the far right, in whatever country, that has had the most appeal to those who feel disenfranchised and essentially cheated by the system. No where is this more apparent, than in Donald Trump’s recent win in the American presidential election. He has demonstrated just how divided America currently is and the division is largely between the big cities and the rural areas, just like it is in Australia and also England with the recent Brexit vote. It’s the people in outlying regions that feel most affected by the economic crisis – this is a worldwide phenomenon in the Western world. It’s a wakeup call to all mainstream political parties that they can’t leave these people behind or think they can win elections just by appealing to city voters.

However, as alluded to in the title, there is an irony here – in fact, there are a few ironies. Firstly, all politicians know, including the ones who don’t admit it, that immigration, in the long term, is good for the economy. Countries like Australia, America, Canada and New Zealand are dependent on immigration for their continued economic growth. There is a limit to economic growth by population growth - and whilst that’s another issue which will need to be addressed some time before this century is over - it’s not what the current political climate is about. The other irony, particularly in America, is that Trump will promote deregulation of commerce, which is what created the financial crisis, which is what spawned the disenfranchised and unemployed workers, who voted him into office.

There is a further irony in that many of these populist leaders – certainly in Australia and America – have an almost virulent opposition to science when it doesn’t suit their ideological agenda. This is particularly true when it comes to climate science. Why is this ironic? Because science has created all the affluence, the infrastructure and the extraordinary communication convenience that everyone in the West considers their birthright.

A recent article in New Scientist (3Dec16, pp.29-32) claimed that people on both sides of an ideological divide will use whatever science they believe to bolster their position. This is called confirmation bias, and we are all guilty. But the issue with climate science is that many on the right believe that it’s a conspiracy by scientists to keep themselves in a job. Most people find this ludicrous, but anyone who is a climate-change sceptic (at least in Australia) believes this with absolute conviction. One Australian politician (recently elected into the Senate) claimed: “I know science fiction when I see it”. How could you argue with that? Not with ‘science facts’, obviously.

Somehow, all these issues get tied to the opposition of gay rights and gay marriage, which one can understand in the classic conservative versus liberal political arena. What this has in common is that it’s a desire to turn back the clock to when things were simpler: men were men and women were women; and marriage was between sexes and not with same sexes. So Trump’s slogan: “Let’s make America great again”; is also a call to turn back the clock by bringing in protectionism and stopping immigration from taking jobs and losing jobs offshore. When Americans made American cars for Americans to drive and didn’t import them from Japan or Europe because they were more fuel-efficient. In fact, he’d love to go back to when fossil fuels were easy to access and there was no limit on their supply. Addiction to oil is arguably the hardest addiction for Western nations to overcome, and, until we do, we really will be living in the past.

But the gay marriage issue is like a marker in the political sand, because one day, like abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage, it will become the status quo and it will be valued and defended equally by both sides of politics. We are in a transition: politically, culturally, technologically and economically.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

How algebra turned mathematics into a language

A little while ago I wrote a post arguing that mathematics as language was just a metaphor. I’ve since taken the post down, though those who subscribe may still have a copy. In the almost 10 years I’ve been writing this blog it’s only the second time I’ve deleted a post. The other occasion was very early in its life when I posted an essay on existentialism (from memory) only to post something more relevant.

The reason I took the post down was because I thought I was being a bit petty in criticising some guy on YouTube who was probably actually doing some good in the world, even if I disagreed with him on a philosophical level. Instead, I wrote a comment on his video, challenging the premise of his talk that the reason mathematics is ‘difficult’ for many people is because it’s not taught as a language. I would still challenge the validity of that premise, but I would now change my own approach by acknowledging that there is a sense in which mathematics is a language, but not in a lingua franca sense.

In my last post – the review of Arrival – language and communication are major themes, and I make mention of a piece of expositional dialogue that I thought very insightful and stuck in my brain as a revelatory thought. To remind everyone: it was the realisation that language determines the limits of what we can think because we all think in a language. In other words, if a language doesn’t define the specific concepts we are trying to comprehend then we struggle to conjure up those concepts, and mathematics provides a good example.

The reason that mathematics is best not construed as a language is because mathematics, as it’s generally practiced, has its own language and that language is algebra. As I’ve said before: mathematics is not so much about numbers as the relationship between numbers, and the efficacy of algebra is that it allows one to see the relationships without the numbers.

And this is the thing, because some people find it easier to think in algebra than others. I will illustrate with examples.

A = k/B then B = k/A

If k is a constant (can’t change) and A and B are variables then there is an inverse relationship between A and B. In other words, if A gets larger then B must get smaller and vice versa. This can be written as A ∝ 1/B or B ∝ 1/A, where ∝ (in this context) means ‘is proportional to’. Note that if the number on the bottom gets smaller then the whole term must get larger and, of course, the converse is also true: if the number on the bottom gets larger then the whole term must get smaller.

People who are familiar with these concepts think this automatically. They also know that if you move a term from one side of an equation to the other, then you either invert it or take its negative. So if you have a language that captures these concepts, then you can think in these concepts with no great effort. It also means that you are not easily intimidated by equations.

To give another common example: the distributive rule, which is arguably the most commonly used rule in algebra.

A = B(C + D) is the same as A = BC + BD

And if A = -B(C - D) then A = BD – BC

(Note that multiplying by minus changes the sign: from + to - and - to +)

We could have done this differently because –(C – D) = D – C and B(D – C) = BD –BC   (So same answer)

This is all very simple stuff and it can be extended to include square roots (including square roots of -1), logarithms, trig functions and so on. Even calculus is just algebra with numbers disappearing into zero with the inverse of infinity.

One of the problems in learning mathematics is that we are trying to learn new concepts and simultaneously a new ‘language’ of symbols. But if the language of algebra allows one to think in new concepts, then a hurdle becomes a springboard to new knowledge.