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.