Algebra Redux

Algebra Redux

By Gene Wilburn

“On Algebra — We’re a month into it, and I’m planning to start a real protest movement, one to have X and Y removed from the alphabet. Z is also suspect as far as I’m concerned…Damn it! They put a man on the moon; can’t they find some way to end the scourge of Algebra?” ~ Huston Piner, My Life as a Myth

“I can explain to you why algebra is useful. But that is not what algebra is really for.” He moved his fingers gently on my temples. “It’s to keep what is in here healthy. PE [exercise] for the head. And the great thing is you can do it sitting down” ~ Mal Peet, Tamar

It pains me that math gets so little cred as a form of mental satisfaction. Oh, everyone respects it, in the way you respect quantum physics — good stuff, yup, the stuff of the universe, yup — just don’t get it near me! Crikey, there’s a horse that can count better than I can. I mean, are you serious? Mental satisfaction?

I don’t mean the satisfaction of the accountant whose books balanced, though there is likely a smattering of it there as well. I mean the pure pleasure of climbing the mountain of numeric relationships and reaching an understanding, and a point of view, you never thought you could. It doesn’t have to be advanced calculus. Mere algebra will do.

But first, a disclaimer. I really like algebra, though I’m aware that many of my friends would consider this a personal failing on my part. Yet when I was in grade school I deeply disliked math because I found arithmetic, such as doing long division on paper, indescribably boring. And frustrating, because I’ve never been very good at arithmetic. I’d nickel and dime myself on tests, making little arithmetic errors here and there even though I knew how to solve the problems. And I’ve never been very solid on the times tables either. Some part of my brain just doesn’t take to arithmetic, and those were the days before electronic calculators were invented. All arithmetic was done by hand.

So, what happened to make me like algebra? Two things: the math itself, and a fantastic high-school math teacher. When it’s introduced to you by an articulate, witty and cool teacher, algebra becomes almost electric.

I just got it, right off. It was ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ and ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’ used symbolically to store values. Just like numeric variables in a computer language (though I didn’t know about them at the time). That plus the sheer power of the equal sign (=). If you can determine equality in some mathematical relationship, you can then solve for its components.

And you can do anything to the equation and it’s still true as long as both sides get the same treatment. Factoring is just a way of simplifying the equation. And sometimes when two equations are related, you can work out the variables in common based on some tricky, but nifty logic. And then there are inequalities like “<”, “>”, “=<”, or “=>”, not to mention getting involved with “nots” and “ands”. Talk about sharpening up your logic circuits.

Of course algebra was considered an essential skill for anyone going into science or engineering. I thought, like many others in the late 50s, that I was Cape Canaveral bound as an engineer or scientist. There were two kinds of teenage boys when I was one: those who wanted to be James Dean, and those who wanted to be a younger version of Werner Von Braun. Alas, I was one of the latter. I was not one of the cool kids.

But, it was not to be. As Mae West said, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” I spent a year in engineering, studying calculus among other challenging studies, but the tidal currents of my mind pulled me to the Humanities, especially literature, philosophy, and art, and I never saw advanced math again. At least not for many years.

Then I retired. Casting about for things that could challenge my brain to keep it healthy during retirement, I began doing sudoku and crossword puzzles, and although I liked them, I didn’t feel I was getting the right kind of challenge. A small tendril of memory teased my brain into thinking about math again and I began to wonder if I could get back into it. So I tried it.

My favourite book series in math and engineering is the Schaum’s Outline series. They’re terse but full of problems to be solved. They guide you through the first steps in solving equations after every new concept, then leave you on your own, only providing the correct answers. You learn a lot trying to reason out why your answer isn’t right, and feel good when you’re on target. It’s totally hands-on learning. So I started with Schaum’s Outline of College Algebra, regaining familiarity with math and undoubtedly growing a set of new neurons.

What I noticed, parenthetically, was that the more I studied algebra, the sharper my mind felt. It’s as if my brain highly welcomed a return to this side of its operations. But then, after a couple of years, for reasons I cannot remember, I drifted again, and quit studying math.

Recently I’ve begun to feel mentally sluggish, beyond just forgetting things and wondering why I’m staring at the pantry shelves. I’ve started to feel not as sharp. Then another new tendril of thought got through to me — I think tendrils may be how the subconscious communicates with the conscious mind — and I remembered how good studying math made me feel.

And so, the arithmetically clumsy me is going to return to studying algebra. Completing the square, here I come.

Life on the Trumpoline

Life on the Trumpoline

By Gene Wilburn

“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” ~ Monty Python

What irritates me the most about Donald Trump is that I have to think about him at all. I’m not a political person by nature and when it comes to governments I’m kind of a you-do-your-thing and I’ll-do-mine type. Try not to do anything too stupid, and I’ll do likewise. If too much negative stuff comes to my attention, I won’t vote for you next time. Up to now this has always been a more-or-less fair trade-off because the governments of the US, Canada, and the UK have been more-or-less sensible. They seemed able to get on with their business in fairly predictable, if muddling, fashion without needing my constant worry or scrutiny.

Lately, though, my concentration has been constantly interrupted by the strangest event in US history: the election of a reality-TV host who makes daily Twitter postings to vent his spleen, who tells Americans the mainstream press is the enemy of the people, who threatens, and when he can, fires all who don’t agree with him. He’s the Man Who Would Be King. Like most naive watchers, I assumed the office of the presidency would reshape him into something more restrained and, with luck, something a little more dignified.

What I hadn’t realized was that he would bring to office with him a group of Neo-Antebellum types who, given their druthers, would strip the US of all the progress it’s made made over the past several decades in the way of civil rights for all citizens. Or to strip away affordable medical care from everyone.

These are not normal day-to-day Republicans. They are people who ran Breibert News to spread false news stories, whacky conspiracy theories, hatred for Islam, anti-science propaganda, and a worldview whose only real message is White Supremacy and unrestricted corporate license. People who seem itching to get into a big war against some foreign government or other. People who espouse a fiery brand of righteous fundamentalist Christianity that is mostly about hatred and intolerance, all under the rubric of “making America great again.” Actually, America was doing pretty well before these people popped up like toadstools after a rain.

The mainstream news analysts can describe all of this better than I can. What I think about are the many others like me (millions?) who find this all a bit much, and whose psyches are being disrupted by a daily assault on reason and sensibility.

If you’re old enough, you may remember as a teenager listening to AM radio at night when you could dial in a good rock station from far-away Oklahoma or California that would fade out for awhile and some other staticy station on the same frequency would drift in and it might be a preacher or a newscast or a country music station, then the rock station would fade back in and for awhile they’d both be at the same volume and your brain would kind of bifurcate and try to process both stations at once, trying to separate the wheat (rock music) from the chaff (everything else). We weren’t meant to live that way, but that’s what’s happening to us now.

This New World is especially hard on those of us who suffer from depression. People aren’t mean to live on edge all the time. We need buffer zones — places or practices to give our minds soft landing points during the day, be it meditation, cozy mysteries, food preparation, yoga, a walk in the park, extra naps, Tai Chi, or music and art. Thoreau described himself as a “self-appointed inspector of snow storms.” I practice relaxation exercises and watch our backyard squirrels and birds from the kitchen window. Things that slow me down and soothe my psyche.

One of my problem areas is Facebook. I love Facebook for sharing art, kibitzing with my many talented, bright friends, sharing interesting developments in science and technology, and just generally keeping in touch with the people and seeing what they’re up to. But since the US election campaign started, the political news stories have started to dominate the feeds and an element of darkness has come over Facebook, filled with fear and loathing and little of it in Las Vegas. With Trump in the White House, it’s become the Big Shop of Horrors.

One of the solutions, of course, is simply to unplug from Facebook, and, in fact, I have friends who take Facebook breaks. Some have never come back, more’s the pity. Without the politics, Facebook can maintain a warm community of caring folk. But that’s just it. They’re caring folk, and they care about what’s happening south of the border. We all do. The US is a great country, seemingly on the verge of institutional, or perhaps constitutional, collapse.

In dealing with Facebook, I’ve discovered an interesting technological phenomenon. Facebook has more impact on a tablet using the Facebook app than it does when accessed via a browser on a computer. Because you hold an iPad or equivalent up close to your face, Facebook is literally “in your face.” Images and memes have greater power when viewed this way. When it’s positive, it’s lovely. When it’s negative, it triggers anxiety faster than it does in a browser.

The only tip I can pass on is this: when Facebook gets too much, delete the app from your iPad and switch to a browser. It makes the ugly stuff a little easier to take somehow. In a twist on Marshall McLuhan, it’s a case of “the medium is the messenger.” Removing the tablet app is the satisfying equivalent of shooting the messenger. At times one has to take pleasure in small acts of defiance.

Trump as a Religious Phenomenon

Trump as a Religious Phenomenon

By Gene Wilburn

“We are going to have an unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout for the inauguration” ~ Donald Trump

The world’s free press have analyzed the actions of Donald Trump as president of the U.S. and found him wanting. Most of the Canadians I know are still in disbelief that the Americans would vote such an inadequate man into high office, much less applaud his actions. The Dan Rathers of the world, bless them, do their best to report on a phenomenon that doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t even acknowledge the difference between fact and fiction. How do you deal logically with something so illogical?

Logic, and for the most part reason itself, are casualties of this election. To understand what happened, and is still happening, it’s useful to dispense with the logic of reason and examine the phenomenon from a different angle, to see it as a fundamentally religious event.

Let’s back up a bit. A lot of people in the United States were in psychic turmoil prior to the election. Although the usual indicators showed that the economy was doing not badly, unemployment was down a bit, and the U.S. dollar was strong, there was a deep unrest among the people and a sense that life was changing, and not for the better. Millennials were having a tough time finding meaningful work. Blue-collar workers could see, first-hand, that their incomes were shrinking and that the future of their children looked shaky. University education had become too costly. Retirement got harder. Many of the manufacturing businesses had packed up and gone offshore. Yet everywhere they looked, they could see conspicuous consumption on the part of the very rich. The American Dream that anyone, through hard work and dedication, could achieve wealth enough to buy a house and raise a family, and finance their kids’ further education looked tarnished.

There are two ways this could be addressed. One way, championed by Bernie Sanders, was through economic logic. America is a country of enormous wealth, but the majority of the wealth belongs to the few, not to the many. The economic system created by giant corporations siphons most of the profits upward, to the 1%, as they’re called. So greedy are the corporations and the people profiting from them that they even oppose raising the minimum wage for its lowest-end workers. So, says the logic, what should happen is that corporations, who live off the workers of the country, should give back more to country’s upkeep and care. In other words, they should pay a fairer share of their taxes.

The other way to address the situation is not through logic, but through fear, repression, and scapegoats. The first scapegoats are the progressives, who with their support for civil rights, women’s rights (including the right to abortions), LGBQT rights, and concerns for the environment, represent, to some, “everything that is wrong with America.” How so? you ask, especially if you’re Canadian and take these issues as “normal,” rather than radical. By linking them to religion. Condemning these things because they’re abominations warned about in the Christian Bible, despite the fact that many progressives are also Christians, and that seeking morality from the Christian Bible amounts to little more than cherry picking passages that support what you want to believe, despite being contradicted by other passages in the Bible.

For conservatives, progressives have been tacitly tagged as “enemies of the state.” Add to that the fear of ISIS and Islamic terrorism, and the patently false idea that America was just destroyed by a black president, and you begin to see a channel though which ferment can flow.

What was obvious was that the populace was fed up with the status quo. Unfortunately, the Democratic party leadership turned a deaf ear to this and simply dropped Bernie Sanders, accepting none of his ideas or finding a way to appeal to his millions of followers. Instead they ran the most status-quo candidate possible, the uncharismatic and, frankly, uninspiring Hillary Clinton. The election was theirs to win, but they lost, if only by a whisker. The disappointed Sanders followers who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton likely tipped the scale for Trump, yet it’s difficult to blame them. She was certainly not the witch portrayed in the alt-press, but it’s doubtful she would have been more than adequate. Looking back, I think many of us would now be satisfied with adequate.

You lose the context of the election if you don’t realize that the religious right, fanned by Fox Media — the very people Barry Goldwater warned the Republicans about decades ago — have developed into a powerful political force. As Christianity dwindles as a force in most first-world countries and nearly all cities, it has flared up in the US, particularly in the South and in other rural areas. Not only has it flared up, but it has brought with it a kind of Messianic fervour replete with “end of days” thinking and a “God on their side” mentality. At base it has shown itself to be a White movement, racist, misogynistic, and puffed up with a sense of moral outrage. And the God of Islam, Allah? Not our God. Separation of Religion and State? Not on our watch. Mexicans? Deport them.

Trump read the landscape perfectly. He plugged himself into a seeming Christianity (anyone else remember him quoting from “Two Corinthians”?) and gave the movement its leader. It’s a conservative jihad. Destroy anything the enemy left behind, like the Affordable Care Act. ISIS? Don’t allow any Muslims into the country. Bomb them back into the stone age if necessary. Rip up international agreements. Alienate historical allies. “Make America Great Again.” And never, ever tell the truth. Just call the lies “alternative facts.”

And so, in the end, you look at a phenomenon that is inherently illogical, but fired with emotional intensity. Again, it’s difficult for Canadians to understand why the people, after seeing Trump in office, can idly stand by and allow him to try to defy the US Constitution itself. In fact, if you visit conservative websites and social media, you’ll find they’re actually cheering him on.

This isn’t politics folks. It’s religion. Even more, it’s the swan song of the American White majority starting to realize they’re not going to be the majority for much longer. These are people who are culturally and intellectually unequipped for life in a pluralistic society. Such people are dangerous.

It’s possible some good could come of this. As the majority of Americans watch this train wreck happen, and their resistance to it picks up momentum, I wouldn’t be surprised if their chant in the next election will be “Never Again!”

Quirks, Quarks, and Banana Management

Quirks, Quarks, and Banana Management

By Gene Wilburn

“‘He said he would come in,’ the White Queen went on, ‘because he was looking for a hippopotamus. Now, as it happened, there wasn’t such a thing in the house, that morning.’ ‘Is there generally?’ Alice asked in an astonished tone. ‘Well, only on Thursdays,’ said the Queen.” ~ Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There

If you’re an operational human being you have quirks, and probably not only on Thursdays. Quirks form part of our personalities and no one is exempt. Undoubtedly there are some quirks best not discussed, but most, let us hope, are harmless, like always cracking a hard-boiled egg on the pointy end, or aligning your saltine crackers so the wax lining seams are always on the top. I’m grateful that the checkout lady at the grocery last week made no comment about the six jars of natural, crunchy peanut butter on the conveyor. You don’t want to run out of peanut butter. And your next door neighbour? Could be the sort who alphabetizes his LP collection. You never know.

One quirk I’ve discovered about aging is that I talk to myself more than I used to. Not just mutterings like “where the hell do we store rye flour anyway?” but more pressing things like coaching myself through the process of shaving under my neck. “Okay, just put on the lather, there you go, now easy with the razor.” Or, “Let’s see what day of the week it is — check the pill case.” You know, tips on how to do things and coaching myself on what I should be doing instead of what I seem to be doing. My wife talks to herself a lot now too. She maintains a sprightly dialogue with her computer, much of it filled with expletives. With me being hard of hearing, I’m assuming it’s the computer she’s talking to.

One of the endearing quirks of my father-in-law, Ab, was on display whenever he and his wife Lillian went to the library to borrow books. He always checked out exactly ten books, five for each of them. In this way he could simply count to tell if he had all the returns in the bag when they came due.

Quirks reveal a lot about ourselves. Like baseball pitchers who carefully avoid stepping on the baseline when they come off the mound, most of us have little superstitions or habits that are telling. Like thinking there’s a right way and a wrong way to eat Pringles (the concave surface should rest on the tongue). I look both ways before crossing a one-way street. I’m not completely trusting that others will follow the rules, and to tell the truth, it once saved me from being hit by a driver going the wrong way. Call me experientially cautious, or that I share Hume’s view of humanity.

One of my main quirks is that words give me a buzz — especially puns. I have to suppress my tendency to make puns, out of politeness to others, though I’ve sometimes been less discreet about sharing puns on Facebook. And words just by themselves fascinate me. I love dictionaries, and I have many times opened a dictionary at random, just to read words and their definitions.

Interesting words can be found in some of the most unexpected places. Take quarks, for instance. There’s a quirky-sounding word if there ever was one, kind of what a duck with hiccups might say. Quarks are the universe’s elementary particles that combine to make composite particles, such as hadrons — the best known of which are the protons and neutrons of atomic nuclei. And deep in this world of particle physics lies a delight: the six “flavours” of known quarks have been named up, down, bottom, top, strange, and charm. It reminds me of the “flavours” of mind I go through while staring at the pantry shelves. What delicious names. The science behind this is a, um, quantum leap, for someone like me, but it’s fun to dwell on the names.

Because words are so central to my being, and because I have hearing loss, we watch videos on our TV with closed captioning turned on. It may be a quirky way to watch, but we’re now so used to it we miss it dreadfully when seeing shows that aren’t captioned. It also helps enormously with those northern accents on UK television productions, or watching an interview with a native Newfoundlander.

Everyone I’ve met has at least a few quirks they’re willing to admit to, such as running a fan in the bedroom all year round, not just in the summer. Or like having a favourite burner on your stove. Or watching sports on TV with the sound off because you can’t stand the blah-blah announcers.

One of the interesting quirks of the human mind is the ability to turn a quirk into a system. For us it’s “banana management.” We both like bananas on our morning cereal, but are particular about them not being too green or too ripe. The green ones have too solid a texture and not enough sweetness, while the too-ripe ones are fit only for banana bread. So we’ve developed the art of banana management, picking up a couple of fairly ripe bananas along with a batch of greener ones so that some are ready to eat immediately and the others have a chance to ripen before use. You have to gauge the colours just right for this to work out or you’ll have banana-less days waiting for them to ripen, or a surplus of banana bread.

I could go on and on about quirks and I’m certain that you could too. When writing longhand, I’m only comfortable with a fountain pen, black ink, and yellow legal pads. When writing on a computer I can only use text editors. Complicated menus and ribbon bars distract me. I only want to see the words I’m typing. But enough. We all have quirks, and they’re part of what make us unique. And as Margaret Mead once said, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”