Israel’s Long-Term Security

Palestinian Nonviolent ProtestThe Israel-Palestine conflict is a difficult one for me and for most liberals. We want to support Israel because of, well, the Holocaust. But the country is currently behaving rather badly. And the Palestinians are clearly an oppressed people, but the terrorists acts are hard to support. But in general, I tend to side with the Palestinians because they are currently the weak party. What’s more, as Juan Cole has noted, not only were the Israelis active terrorists before they got to their current powerful position, “One of the arguments Israeli politicians give for allowing Israeli squatters to keep the Palestinian land in the West Bank that they have usurped is that attempting to move them back out would produce violence.”

One person I depend upon to shine a light on the conflict is Eric Alterman. He is certainly not anti-Israel, but he’s more than willing to look seriously at what’s going on. And in this regard, last week at The Nation, he wrote, Israel Celebrates a Return to the Status Quo in the Middle East. The perspective of the article is summed up in its subtitle, “Many Israelis, Netanyahu included, were never serious about seeking a two-state solution in the peace negotiations.” It’s very depressing.

Basically, he argues that the status quo is in the best short-term interests of Israel. No one in power is really interested in making any kind of a deal, so it is very easy to sabotage. And that’s exactly what Housing Minister Uri Ariel did when he approved over 700 new homes in the illegal Gilo settlement. All the talk of a two-state solution is just lip service. It is in the service of keeping American and European allies supporting the government.

I wonder how good a long-term strategy this is, however. Just in the last couple of years, I’ve noticed a shift in American opinion about Israel. It isn’t that people have stopped supporting the country. But there is push back against what has become a kind of standard conservative belief that whatever is good for Israel is good for America. People are questioning that. And going along with it is the idea that Israel is a real pain. They are like the crazy brother who you try to keep out of trouble. And if I were Netanyahu, I would be worried about this growing realization.

It just isn’t much of a step from accepting that Israel isn’t good by definition to realizing that their treatment of the Palestinians really is quite awful. I don’t think that Israel is any worse in its position than any other government would be. Governments tend to push whatever power they have. And if it were a thousand years ago, this conflict would have ended long ago with a genocide. You can read all about it in the Old Testament. But what’s going on is the same kind of thing, just done at a very slow pace so as not to upset Israel’s allies. It isn’t a genocide, though; rather it is just a way to slowly displace the Palestinians from their land, one settlement (One house!) at a time.

Ultimately, Israel needs the goodwill of the rest of the world—most especially of the United States. I think they should bear that in mind, because their long-term security depends upon it. Giving in a bit to the Palestinians now might be a great deal ten or twenty years from now.

Mourning for Lu Lingzi

Lu LingziI have a natural tendency towards political incorrectness. So I bristle a bit at turning victims into heroes, as we have on this day, one year after the cruel bombing of the Boston Marathon. The truth is that people die tragically every day and I just can’t bear the burden of caring more than I do in a general sense about all the victims of injustice who suffer constantly, often needlessly. But there was one victim of the bombing last year that I feel a special connection to.

Lu Lingzi was a 23-year-old mathematics graduate student at Boston University. She was focusing on statistics, which only makes her that much cooler. Apparently, she was halfway through her qualifying exams when she was killed. According to one of her teachers, Associate Professor Daniel Weiner, she was in the top quarter of her class. He said her work had improved a great deal in the last year, most likely because her better grasp of English was allowing her to demonstrate her actual knowledge.

Even more than most areas of math, I think that people don’t understand what statistics is all about. It requires a very unusual way of looking at individual events. It is a way of understanding how a system works without knowing how the system works. Indeed, that is what quantum mechanics is all about. We don’t know—and probably never will—what causes reality to work the way it does. But we understand the statistics and that tells us an enormous amount about reality.

Lu Lingzi was from Shenyang in the northeast of China. Her parents still live there. They flew into Boston to attend a memorial service for her last night. They have started an organization, The Lingzi Foundation. Part of this involves a group of people running in the Boston Marathon to raise money. Sadly (from my perspective), the foundation doesn’t even make mention of her interest in mathematics.

Of course, I don’t want to wedge Lu Lingzi into a box. She does seem to have been as complicated as anyone. But there is shockingly little information about her. I do know that she played the piano—but not much more. And I think that’s part of the problem with these remembrances. The press isn’t much interested in the people other than as symbols of a tragedy. But I consider her a fellow traveler. The world was deeply harmed by the loss of a young person who loved music and math.

Be a Patriot, Pay Your Taxes!

Statue of LibertyI just did my taxes. Well, I did a rough calculation and then filled out an extension. And as usual, I am amazed at how much I pay. It isn’t in absolute terms that I’m amazed however. It is in relative terms—relative to how much the super rich are paying. Despite the fact that I made almost nothing last year, I am still paying roughly the same rate that Mitt Romney is paying. Actually, I’m probably paying a substantially higher rate because I assume he went out of his way to pay more when people were looking.

It still amazes me that the American political party that most wraps itself in the flag is also the party that most complains about taxes. To them, apparently, tax avoidance is the most patriotic thing you can do. Mitt Romney said as much during the 2012 campaign. And sadly, Romney is one of the more reasonable Republicans. It gets much worse.

I do not believe in nationalism. It is generally a pox on the world. But I have a great fondness for my own country and for us as a people. I very much believe in our ideals. And as much as we screw up all the time, we try to do good. The government, on the other hand, has distinctly evil aspects to it. That doesn’t especially distinguish it from other governments. But there is a wider gap between its rhetoric and its actions than I like.

In this regard, I am doubtless like most Americans. But there is a dysfunction among conservatives where many believe that if they don’t like what the government does, it is patriotic to be treasonous. The basis of this is the black & white mentality that claims that when a Democratic is in the White House, he is a tyrant and a socialist. Thus it is right and proper to threaten government officials with guns.

I’m not really talking about Cliven Bundy, though. He is more along the lines of a crank. He should have been arrested long ago and that would be that. But the reason he has power is of great concern. Fox News and other right wing media outlets have made him into a hero when he is anything but. He’s just a man who doesn’t want to pay his taxes.

I’m sure that I can find more things in the federal budget that I don’t like than Bundy can. One of the things I don’t like is how the BLM allows ranchers to graze their cattle at below market prices. Of course, in Bundy’s case, even that is too much. So it just steals it. And it isn’t the government that he’s stealing from; it’s the people; it’s America. The million dollars that he owes the government is a million dollars that doesn’t go to sick children. It’s a million dollars that doesn’t go for infrastructure improvements. It’s a million dollars that doesn’t go for security.

The people who protest this day are unpatriotic. And that’s fine. That’s the great thing about America: you are allowed to hate it. But don’t go around claiming to be patriotic while you dump all over the nation just because the government isn’t doing exactly what you think it should be doing. That’s being patriotic to some myth that you’ve constructed. America is a real place with a real government. And if you hate it, then at least admit that you aren’t a patriot.

Otherwise, smile as you sign that check to pay for the functioning of the American government and all of the important things that it does for all of us. Because that’s what patriots do.

Leonhard Euler and Diff Eq

Leonhard EulerOn this day in 1707, Leonhard Euler was born. He was one of the greatest mathematicians ever. And that gives me an opportunity to discuss one of my favorite subjects: differential equations. I love them because they are such an obvious example of creativity in mathematics. Although courses are taught in them, there isn’t a lot to learn. Solving them is a highly intuitive thing, and people who are very good at them are like magicians.

Let’s consider the Cauchy–Euler equation. In its most common form, it looks like this:

Cauchy-Euler Equation

What the dy/dx represents is the instantaneous trend line: the change of y relative to x. And the figure that looks like the square of that is the instantaneous trend line of the instantaneous trend line. Our job is to find the equation for y without without the differentials.

So how do we proceed? Well, this is a standard equation and we know exactly what to do. But that wasn’t true hundreds of years ago. And that’s where the magic comes in. I should note, however, that most differential equations have no solutions. Anyway, we proceed by making an assumption that:

y = xm, therefore: dy/dx = mxm-1, and d2y/dx2 = (m-1)mxm-2

Substituting this into the equation above causes all of the x terms to fall out and leaves us with a simple quadratic formula for m:

Cauchy-Euler Equation Solution

Of course, this equation is going to give us two roots (although they may be identical). And the roots may be real or imaginary (involving the square root of a negative number). In the second case you get exponential solutions. But the two real roots case provides an answer like this:

Cauchy-Euler Equation Solution

What all of this shows is that the process is a whole lot of intuition guided by experience. This is why I say that mathematics is at least as creative as art. People who don’t understand math tend to think it is about applying a bunch of rules. But if that were true, math would be simple. It is actually constrained creativity. And that’s true of any kind of art. Except with mathematics, the constraints are entirely internal. And with that, join me in saying…

Happy birthday Leonhard Euler!