Thursday, September 22, 2016

The New Racism

A new form of racism is forming.  It artificially creates boundaries between groups of people in an us-vs-them kind of way and is slowly pervading our society.  It is based on principles that have been percolating for decades and philosophically is extremely conservative, although it is often championed by political liberals.  It's the doctrine of cultural purity and the fight against cultural appropriation.

In the old Star Trek show and throughout its various incarnations, a pervasive theme is their "Prime Directive" which insists that primitive cultures must remain primitive -- and advanced civilizations are not allowed to influence or even make contact with less developed populations.  Why?  Well, in history it seems that more advanced civilizations always tend to dominate and oppress indigenous peoples as they expand.  So it must be a bad thing.  Indigenous cultures should be protected and walled off, so to speak, for their own protection.

In his "Speaker for the Dead" series, O Scott Card tries to look at this attitude from the primitive alien's point of view.  They don't feel protected.  They feel left out.  Humans are allowed to roam the galaxy and explore new worlds while the alien species is relegated to languish in their little niche, kept from the tools that would allow them to compete.

Now it's getting much further out of hand.  Disney recently recalled their Moana costumes because of complaints of cultural appropriation.  What kind of a message does that send to children?  You can't pretend to be these characters because they are Polynesian.  A Polynesian kid going to the Disney store has to choose a European costume, or American, because Islander costumes are not allowed.  Does that sound like racism?  Sure does to me.  If a supermarket said that they won't sell tortillas because that would be appropriating Hispanic cultural foods, that doesn't make things better -- it doesn't support multiculturalism.  It's not inclusive, but exclusive.

I live in Hawaii, and I know people who are obsessed with their Hawaiian cultural purity.  They put up barriers between "Hawaiians" and "Haoles," insisting that there be no cultural appropriation.  In so doing, their culture is dying, missing out on the tools it would need to grow and flourish in the world.

By allowing and embracing cultural appropriation, a culture can grow and develop.  For over a thousand years, the Chinese would appropriate indiscriminately from its neighbors, and became one of the most advanced cultures in the world.  But they eventually shut that door, and decided that other cultures were not worthy of appropriation, while the European cultures which were happy to appropriate tea, noodles, gunpowder, and other things from China grew to dominate the world.

Being anti-cultural-appropriation could be considered the newest form of racism and bigotry.  It's language that is primarily used by the politically liberal, and so we typically haven't heard born again bakers claim that since they are not gay, they don't want to culturally appropriate from the gay community and bake a cake for a gay wedding, but it comes to the same thing, doesn't it?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Economic Disruption

Smart Automation:

Businesses are investing more and more in what I will call smart automation.  That is, automation that is easily programmable to do a variety of tasks that formerly were done by a person.  For example, the self-checkout bots that grocery and big box department stores are using would be termed smart automation.  Similarly, a law firm using an artificial intelligence’s search algorithms to sift through legal documents rather than hiring a clerk to do it would also be considered smart automation.  Self driving semi-truck delivery would be another example. 

The effects of smart automation on business finance:

As companies invest in these new technologies, there are considerable savings.  For example, the upkeep on self-checkout machines in grocery stores is far less than the salaries and benefits that would be paid to the workers they replaced.  In our current business model, these savings largely flow to the top of the corporate pyramid, and we see top executive salaries soaring into uncharted reaches.  I believe this to be the primary reason for the recent rising disparity in executive vs. worker salaries that have been upsetting activists and political leaders for the last few years rather than corporate greed or other such accusations that have been made.  It’s simply a consequence of an old business model in a new environment.

Even though it is not due to malicious greed and probably not even recognized by the executives themselves, the long term consequences on our economy could be dire.  As more individuals are replaced by smart automation (like tax accountants being replaced by turbo-tax), less of the business profits will flow to the working class.  This will seriously limit the ability of the large customer base to consume goods and services.  This may lead to economic upheaval, or even serious political upheaval.  If unaddressed, it could easily lead to depression conditions like we have never experienced in this country’s history.

What needs to happen:

The structure of employment and pay needs to change.  Companies need to hire workers at higher salaries and lower hours, and pay them using the savings they realize using smart automation.  That savings needs to not just flow to the top, but benefit workers throughout the company.  Workers need to understand that their hours may need to be cut, but their hourly pay will increase.  The paradigm needs to be centered around benefitting a large number of employees rather than benefitting the top executives.

Corporate tax codes could be written that incentivize hiring high numbers of full time employees (those with health and retirement benefits) to encourage businesses to adopt this new paradigm.  If businesses are to survive, there must be a customer base to consume the goods and services.

The problem isn’t that things were wrong in the past.  It’s just that technology keeps advancing and is disrupting business in a way nobody anticipated.  We need to take action now and make adjustments to the market before a more serious disruption to force dynamic change occurs (like a super-recession or a highly damaging revolution).

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Here's an explanation of the common question, why does 9.999... (with nines repeating forever) =10?  Well, suppose we had a one by ten rectangle, which has area 10 square units.  Let's fill in the first nine squares.

Now the shaded area is 9 square units.  Let's continue by shading the next .9 units along.

The shaded area is now 9.9 square units.  We can then shade the next .09 units.

We have shaded an area of 9.99 square units.  If we continued this process infinitely, we would shade an area of 9.999... (repeating forever) square units. 

Now the argument goes like this.  Consider any point in the original rectangle that is not on the right boundary.  If it's not on the right boundary, then it is some positive distance from that boundary.  If the point is really really close to the right boundary, say .000005 away, then it will be shaded by the time we get to 9.999999 square units shaded.  In fact, after repeating infinitely, every point of the original rectangle is shaded except the line segment forming the right boundary.  But a line segment is one dimensional, and has zero area.  So the area shaded is equal to the area of the original rectangle, which is 10.  Therefore, 9.999...=10.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

When will I ever need math?

I was sitting at my desk in a shared office.  The other grad students and I taught algebra classes, and an algebra student was consulting with one of my fellows.  His question was interesting.  "When am I going to be walking down the street and need to factor a polynomial?"  My instant thought was, "You won't.  Do you plan on making a living walking down streets?"  But he wasn't my student, so I let my fellow grad student handle her student's question.

I've seen the meme pretty often come across my facebook feed.  "Another day gone and I didn't use algebra once."  Mathy people like me like to point out all the things we do that rely on algebra.  When you use a cell phone, shop online, drive a car, or listen to recorded music, you are depending on algebra.

But people aren't referring to that.  They are referring to the tasks they had to do in school.  They didn't have to factor a polynomial.  They didn't have to solve for x or remember the curly braces for a set of solutions.  That's really a part of how we educate in every field.  Think about it.  There are probably a lot of tasks you did in school that you didn't do once in the last 24 hours. Did you diagram a sentence? Did you compose an essay? Did you read and critique a chapter in a Dickens novel? How about perform in a band concert? Compete on a cross country team? Take a test on the history of Mesopotamia? There are a lot of things that we learn to do in school, and very few days as adults do we actually do them.  Their value comes from the overall skill and knowledge that we learn.  

And we do directly use algebra quite often.  But it doesn't look like solving for x.  For example, when we judge where a thrown ball will land, we are estimating the shape of a parabola. When we save for retirement, we are trying to earn interest described by an exponential equation. When we pay for electricity per KWh, the bill comes from a linear formula. Understanding algebra can help us get a handle on our world.  But the way it's practiced in schools is just as contrived and unrealistic as writing that essay on the Great Wall of China.  It's not the specific task, but the general skill and understanding that is important.

So if you complain about how algebra is taught in the schools, sure, I can agree with you there.  But don't complain about learning algebra.  It's still quite important in the world in which we live.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Favorite Bias

One of the things people worry about, especially critics of the LDS Church, is confirmation bias.  That's the bias that tends to only look for supporting data.  This is the bias where apple users read MacWorld which supports their view that Macs are better that PCs, while PC users read PC Magazine to support their opposed view.  Those who believe vaccines cause autism only give credence to the blog posts that support their view and ignore the rest, often saying something like "If they oppose my view, they must be just bought out by the pharmaceutical companies."

Critics of the church often claim that a majority of members are just sheep who fall prey to confirmation bias.  But I wonder about those claims.  It appears that many critics of the church to fall prey to the other side of the coin.  I guess we could call it "refutation bias."  It's a kind of hyper-critical version of confirmation bias where you only tend to look for refuting data.  It's like an unhealthy marriage relationship where one partner only sees the flaws in the other.  These flaws are often inconsequential like toilet paper roll direction, leaving dishes on the table after eating, occasionally snorting while laughing, and such.  But if one partner biases their view to only look for these flaws, it can drive a wedge between what could have been a wonderful relationship.

In a 1981 general conference address, Carlos Asay said there were "those who are more interested in shadows than in light."  I think this is what he is talking about, this refutation bias.  I have to admit that I fall prey to it often.  It annoys my wife that I always view any new information with a lot of skepticism and the first thing I do is try to look for flaws.  I'm quick to reject.  This is a favorite bias of mine.  But, just like every spouse has to overlook many things about their partner that bug them, particularly if they are not very consequential to the marriage, Church members often need to overlook things about the church that bug them, particularly if they are not consequential to their salvation.  In a marriage, things that seem so relevant and important at the time ("toilet paper should unroll from over the top!") are often seen differently when observed from a broader point of view.  We take our lumps, swallow our pride, and put it behind us for the sake of the relationship.  When members of the church do the same for the sake of their relationship with Deity, critics are often quick to call out the confirmation bias, that members are sheep blindly following their leaders.  But I don't think that's true at all.  The critics themselves may be the sheep, blinded by their refutation bias.

In practice, we have to watch out for both forms of bias.  I have definitely known members to have strong confirmation bias, and critics to have strong refutation bias.  But we all need to ignore some things and refute others.  The best way I have seen to find balance in this area is to try to find a wider, more comprehensive view.  Try to view things from the different parties' perspectives.  There's no way to know everything, but showing a little tolerance and charity, giving people the benefit of the doubt, and stepping back a little can help things become more clear.  I'm definitely not perfect at this, but it's good to remember, we all can have a little too much bias at times.