Thursday, June 12, 2014

Why Math is Important

I can recall from my high school days this repeated question, proffered by yours truly and many of my peers: “Why is math so important anyway?  What am I going to use Algebra and Trig for if I am not going into Engineering?”

The answer usually came packaged in a readied quip that informed us we would need the math to get a job after we graduated from school.  Through a lifetime of continuing education, I have come to a much more profound and urgent answer to this question: we need math skill in order to survive individually and collectively as a species and to maintain a functioning and meaningful democracy. 

This reasoning can be applied to all areas of society but there are certain of them that warrant critical and urgent attention.

These are the current, central facts of American foreign policy; not opinion, not a slant, not a partisan critique, just bare reality:

Radical Insurgents have just overrun the city of Tikrit and are headed toward Baghdad.
701 civilians have been killed in Iraq this month.
To date, approximately 188,000 people have died violent deaths in the Iraq war, with an estimated 134,000 innocent civilian deaths.
The Iraq war has cost US taxpayers more than...please pause and think about this...two Trillion dollars in direct cost.  This does not include interest on the war debt, which is calculated to add another four trillion dollars over the next four decades.

Significantly, this does not include the cost of the Afghanistan war, which the Brown University Study Group on War Costs estimates to be between $3.2 - $4 Trillion in direct cost, with civilian deaths estimated at 21,000 and total violent deaths at 225,000.  Here is the numeric value of the direct cost of our two recent wars, without interest: $6,000,000,000,000.  Put another way that is one billion taken six thousand times, or six times ten to the power of twelve. 

For last year, the total annual budget for the Food Stamp program (SNAP) was $74.6 billion, this during an historic period of record unemployment.  That is 1.2% of the direct cost of the two wars, without their required interest payments.  The program, which 47 million Americans rely on, was just cut by Congress.

Halliburton has been awarded $39.5 billion in Iraq war and "post-war" contracts.

Other companies, such as Northrup Grumman, General Dynamics. Raytheon, United Technologies, BAE, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have earned hundreds of billions of dollars in war profiteering.  The top three US Defense contractors' revenues represents 1% of the entire US $10 Trillion GPD and each are listed on the Fortune Most Admired Companies list.  Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and Boeing are the largest arms producers in the world.  The term “war profiteering” can and should be understood grammatically and empirically as non-political as well as political since making private profit on war is, in fact, profiteering.  This language needs to move into the mainstream narrative by virtue of its objective, factual nature.

Regarding the largely ignored moral calculus, Richard Clarke, Chairman of the Counter Terrorism Security Group under President G.W. Bush has stated his view that President Bush and others are guilty of war crimes.

One of my favorite books, one that should be required reading in all high schools and continuing education programs is Innumeracy, by John Allen Poulos, Professor of Mathematics at Temple University.  Poulos explicates the problem of the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy in our society and our great difficulty with grasping numbers and absolute value at grand scale.  We seem to literally lose the ability to count and to assess proportion and therefore meaning and value at great orders of magnitude.  I think in some ways, this has made it easier for us to be hoodwinked into accepting the media narrative on wars, war debt, casualties, global warming and rates of change relative to time with a shrug of the shoulders and a "let's just move on" attitude.  We can't just move on: we need to stop and critically assess what has happened, understand it and respond. 

The cartoonish presentation of anti-war activists as a "Leftist" or "radical" is part of the media narrative.  This has to be challenged, as does US Defense policy, on rational and empirical grounds.  We are cutting food stamps and support programs for the poor.  Elites are negotiating major trade agreements in secret, without Congressional or citizen involvement.  We have the highest prison population on earth.  We have made access to higher education (where we can learn how to think analytically and critically) more difficult with skyrocketing costs and crushing student debt.  US college tuition and fees have increased 1,120% since 1978, while other successful modern democracies offer free, higher education.  These disparities are themselves radical but are not portrayed as such in popular media.

The Defense sector has contributed nearly $11,000,000 in PAC contributions in the 2014 election cycle alone.  This is split at roughly 60% to the GOP and 40% to Democrats and does not include millions in direct political contributions to individual campaigns.

Corporations are people.

We are committing passive suicide.  It’s in the numbers. 

I dedicate this post to my high school math tutor, Michael Ferris.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Life, Newton and Clam Sauce

Today June 7th, 2014 is a Saturday and it is my fifty sixth birthday.  My wife and children were generous and gave me space to plan my own day with whatever I wanted to do, save being on time for a dinner reservation for Kathy and me at our favorite restaurant.  Not a bad deal.

I planned to take a 45-mile ride on my bicycle through the nearby Shawangunk Mountains and do some hard elevation riding.  It is my view that there are fewer places on earth more beautiful and well suited for cycling and I enjoyed every instant of it.  When I am on the bike and “in the cockpit” I feel like I am 25-years-oId and am always ready to embrace this sensory math with gusto.

Before the ride, we had some unexpected company, people I love and was glad to see, so I stayed for a visit.  I got a late start and was concerned about our dinner reservation, but set off on my venture.  The solo ride went well despite the extra poundage I carry, winter pounds that seem more difficult to lose with each new spring.

 As I climbed above the famous Hairpin Turn near New Paltz, New York I was trying to calculate the additional force/energy required to carry my weight and how much faster I would be if I lost the extra pounds.  This is a form of self-inflicted mental punishment for aging athletes while we suck air into our lungs in order to keep peddling without stopping.  It seems to work.

My wife, being the great planner she is moved the reservation out just in case, so when I got home I was able to shower and quickly dress and we were on our way.

Il CenĂ colo in the town of Newburgh, New York is one of those rare restaurants that people, common and famous, will travel many miles to in order to enjoy the exquisite food and wonderful dining experience it consistently offers.  Tonight I decided to break from my vegan diet and splurge, ordering spaghetti and clams in white clam sauce, along with an organic salad.  Not a special and nothing fancy, but something I seemed to be craving.  Such a meal can be messy, so I delicately tucked the corner of my linen napkin into the front of my lime green, button-down Polo shirt.  This is my version of thinking ahead.

The meal was splendid and Kathy and I got to relax and enjoy the food and each other’s company.  Not a drop of clam sauce got on my shirt and after spooning some of the remaining sauce into my mouth I removed the napkin.

Kathy continued on slowly with her meal and then decided she’d had enough, but invited me to try her Rigatoni Manzo. The Manzo is a house special with a delicious Bolognese sauce.  Reaching across, I lifted two rigatoni with a generous lump of sauce above her plate. My hand and the Manzo then began the short lateral journey to my plate. 

Most accidents and sports injuries happen during the deceleration phase of motion.  This is a fact I am acutely aware of.  However, there are sensual moments when our instinctive awareness of Newtonian physics leaves us and desire becomes the overwhelming force.  This is life, isn’t it?

In a cinematic moment that seemed to last forever, I was able to sit back as an observer and watch the two pieces of manzo-laden rigatoni make their vertical descent from my overloaded fork toward the placid pond of clam sauce resting in my concave dinner plate.  It was the special moment when time slows down and one can realize they are about to experience a sensational event.

I think the great Ernie Kovacs could have planned this sequence for everyone in the restaurant to see.  I would like to say that in the brief moments of gravity observation I thought about an estimated mass-times-acceleration equaling a certain force and then the likely dispersal pattern of the delicious liquid medium that awaited this pending collision, but no such exercise occurred.

What I was able to muster was this.

“Oh shit!”

The clam sauce received the rigatoni in a way that would not disappoint the most avid calamity watcher.  The splatter pattern was amazingly even as predicted by transient ballistic flow in Fluid Mechanics.  My lime green shirt became the primary recipient of the droplet array, starting at the collar and working its way down, proportionately, to the middle of my shirt and both sleeves.

Looking up from the moistened and now fragrant shirt, my gaze passed over the useless napkin, lying in a lump next to the plate, then at eye level to other dinner guests in front of us and then to each side as they politely dropped their own gazes in what seemed tender acts of mercy.

“You better use your napkin and put some sparkling water on that right away.”

“You’re right.”

Normally one uses this instant cleaning method in a discrete way, when there are one or more spots to attend to.  I began, furiously dipping the corner of my napkin into the Italian sparkling water and dabbing it onto the numerous spots on my shirt as Kathy directed me to additional locations that I couldn’t see for what seemed like five minutes.  At the moment we determined that I was done, my pressed shirt, rather than having spots of clam sauce all over it was now completely drenched with over-priced San Pellegrino.  It looked as though I had just come in out of the rain.

Looking up again I could now see everyone in the restaurant watching on in apparent horror at my petty act of barbarism.  Truthfully, I shared their revulsion…. for a moment.

With dessert yet to be ordered, but my tableside laundry finished, destiny left only one more thing to do.  Thank God for spontaneity.

On the down beat, my dear wife and I burst into laughter, harmonizing heaves and giggles for several minutes, unable to stop as we leaned over the table and fell back in our seats repeatedly, tears rolling down our cheeks.  In passive periphery, I could see other patrons taking in the entertainment in good cheer, but I didn’t care anymore as I was simply taken up in our moment of joy in innocuous life.  It was a day to remember.

Sometimes joyous life comes in wonderful little accidents.