Sunday, August 21, 2016

There's refugees, and there's refugees

Today is the 48th anniversary of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. This military action put an end to the Prague Spring, the effort by reformers within the Czechoslovak Communist Party to create "socialism with a human face," i.e., socialism with real respect for human rights and democratic norms.

Following the invasion, about 200,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled the country.

"In a refugee camp in Traiskirchen, Austria," from
Since the eruption of the refugee crisis in Europe last year, the Czech Republic has been in line with its fellow post-communist neighbors in being very reluctant to accept refugees. The issue hasn't been as dramatic as in Hungary, which found itself part of the refugees' land route from Greece to Austria and Germany, but there have been anti-refugee demonstrations, predictably vile verbiage in newspaper comment sections, and arson committed against a non-profit that serves refugees.

A common refrain in the online discourse is, "Why don't they stay and fight for their country? What a bunch of cowards."

Today, the online news site Britské listy published the following.

Just an impudent observation on August 21st, writes Iva Pekárková on Facebook.

I look at how many people to this day complain that the Americans didn't come to our aid back then - whether by fault of the Yalta agreement, or because they just turned their backs on us. In the course of a few weeks, refugee dorms and encampments in countries to our west began bursting at the seams with the influx of Czechoslovaks and they didn't stop bursting at the seams for at least a year. Just about the whole world, including some fearless Russians, expressed solidarity with us. (A few years ago I met an aging Indian, still to this day proud that back then he wrote in to an Indian newspaper, saying how much he didn't like that occupation.)

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Speaking math

I wrote this as part of the writing workshop at Ferry Beach, the Unitarian Universalist family camp in Saco, Maine, our family has been going to for several years.

Kate has done the workshop every year she's been there. I did it this year for the first time.

One of the prompts provided by the workshop leader, Bill Trippe, was to write about something you're good at. Late in the week I helped a high-school student with some summer math homework she had as part of her prep for taking calculus in the fall. Reflecting on that experience led me to this.

Have you ever had to do arithmetic in Roman numerals?

Quick! What’s XXXVIII multiplied by XCIV?

If you take a moment to translate that into familiar terms – 38 times 94 – it’s not so bad. A few people can do it in their heads. Put out pencil and paper, and it’s a skill we expect of our grade-school students.

But what if you didn’t have Arabic numerals and place value, and you had to actually solve the thing using those damn letters?

It’s the rare person who has the ability to work with numbers under a system as clumsy as that. It would be a pretty valuable skill in a society that faced the logistical tasks of conquering and ruling an empire as large as Rome’s. And it must have looked like wizardry to most people.

Our number system makes arithmetic accessible to everyone, but actual math remains in the realm of magic for many people, which is a sad commentary on how poorly we teach math.

How do you know that a3 + a4 can’t be simplified down into a7? If you’re currently in an algebra class, you might be able to call up some rule of exponents to tell you it’s wrong. But if you speak math, you call up the rule after you get the feeling that you can’t combine those terms.

It’s the same way anyone relates to their native language. If you were raised speaking something close to Standard English, you don’t need a conscious memory of a rule to keep you from saying “I saw they.” It just feels wrong.

I like language as a metaphor, because it’s something almost everyone uses, and even at a basic level it’s a surprisingly complex task.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Political thrill-seekers wanted

I was talking with my family today about Trump's VP pick of Mike Pence and relaying something I'd read about how the supposedly "safe" choice of Pence might be a disaster (because he's not quick on his feet in response to tough questions, and as Trump's running mate he will surely be put on the hot seat being asked whether he agrees with this or that crazy / offensiveness / disturbing thing Trump has said.

I mentioned how this was going to be such an entertaining political season.

"Yeah, except that it could actually happen," observed my wife.

"True. It's kinda like the country as a whole is engaged in a giant act of political bungee jumping."

Friday, July 8, 2016

Pain and the body politic

I’m re-reading Antonio Damasio The feeling of what happens, a book about how consciousness works. This morning I happened to read the following passage:
Pain and pleasure are thus part of two different genealogies of life regulation. Pain is aligned with punishment and is associated with behaviors such as withdrawal or freezing. Pleasure, on the other hand, is aligned with reward and is associated with behaviors such as seeking and approaching.
Punishment causes organisms to close themselves in, freezing and withdrawing from their surroundings. Reward causes organisms to open themselves up and out toward their environment, approaching it, searching it, and by so doing increasing both their opportunity of survival and their vulnerability. (p. 78)
If we take seriously the idea of human society as a superorganism, this observation has some interesting implications.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The colonization of mental space (Day 8)

Previous post
The iconic image of Che, but rendered in corn kernels on a black surface.
From the stairway to the roof at the Museum of the Battle of Ideas
(Slogan noticed today: “The fight brought us unity, unity brought us victory.”)

Today’s main event was an outing to Cárdenas, a small city not far from Varadero, and the main thing in Cárdenas was the Museum of the Battle of Ideas.
This bas relief sculpture is mounted on the wall across the street from the entrance to the museum.
The words below the Cuban flag say, "Cuba responds" (to the U.S.'s stance in the Elián González affair).
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
The motivating force of the museum is the Elián González incident, from 1999-2000. González’s parents were divorced, and his mother fled Cuba with him by boat. The boat sank in a storm and the mother died, along with most on board. González was rescued and turned over to the US Coast Guard and eventually to relatives in Miami.

Fining the truth

According to an article in the Czech press, a Russian has been fined 200,000 rubles (a little over $3,000) for information posted on VKontakte, described as the Russian version of Facebook.

The information that got him in trouble was the claim that the Soviet Union attacked Poland in World War II.

One issue here is the free-speech side of fining someone for a thing they wrote. Well, there are libel cases against people making claims that the Holocaust didn't happen, but that's because there's a mountain of evidence that it did.

The problem with this case is that what he wrote is true.

Well, I wasn't there, but the Russians don't have a very good counter-story. The photo published with the story shows a Soviet officer greeting his German counterpart in the fall of 1939. According to the caption, the photo was published in the Soviet Union on the anniversary of the "liberation of western Ukraine and Belarus." A liberation that was accomplished by attacking Poland.

The defendant was charged under a new law criminalizing the "rehabilitation of Nazism."

He was convicted because he had good grades in history, so he should have known that he was spreading false information.

According to the court, Luzgin should have known that his action would have "damaging effects on the public, including children, and that they would spread the surviving notions about negative actions of the Soviet Union during the Second World War."

Monday, July 4, 2016

Public debts, public wealth, public services

This is the first of what I hope will be a few posts on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.

My guess is that there are a lot more people who are curious about the book than there are who have read it, so in my writing I won’t assume that you’re one of the ones who’s read it.

I’m also guessing that my modest readership is not majority economists, so I’ll aim to be comprehensible to people not versed in the linguistic conventions of our field.


The state plays a key role in Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.

The central fact of the book is the decline in inequality during the first half of the 20th century, the continued relatively low level after World War II, and the renewed increase after about 1980.

Income shares of the top 10%, top 1%, top 0.1%, and top 0.01% in the U.S.
Data from World Wealth and Income Database