Basic Math or Calculus or Something Else?

imageOn my way into work last Friday, I heard an NPR report on the (then) upcoming address by President Obama about the changes he would make over at the NSA. I don’t usually like reports like this because I tire of all the up-front analysis of a speech that hasn’t been made. Listening also reminds me that the speech itself (which I wouldn’t hear because I was working) would be analyzed to death after it was given. What did catch my attention though, was when Mara Liasson mentioned that “they [Whitehouse] have to consider the political calculus on this” before beginning a segment on the various issues the President had to consider. A follow-up to that story mentions that President Obama once said that “he wanted a debate about the right balance between security and civil liberties…

Political issues line up on either side of every decision the President makes. Pros and cons. Plusses and minuses. Last time I checked, addition and subtraction were basic math, not calculus. So, was Mara mistaken? Maybe, maybe not. Considering the pros and cons is something I would expect the president and his faithful Blue Ribbon Commission to consider. On the one hand, we have security and the need to defend this country from various evildoers. On the other hand, we have the Constitution, the 4th Amendment and a few other things that generally point to a right to privacy. You would think that those Blue Ribbon guys would weigh the collective issues on both sides and attempt to balance the load. Strike a happy medium. Do the right thing. If that’s how the Blue Ribbon boys and girls work, they would be applying basic math. Mara would be wrong.

Mara’s a pretty sharp lady. I’ve been listening to her for years. She a professional journalist, she seems to think about the things she writes and talks about and she has an NPR name. (I’d say she rates a 6 on the NPR reporter name scale. I mean, she’s no Daniel Swerdling or Nina Totenberg, but she’s got Paul Brown beat by a mile. I’m not even sure how he got a job at NPR, well, he is a good reporter). Mara might have chosen the word Calculus because she knows that something more involved is going on behind the scenes; something that requires calculus.

Calculus, according to Wikipedia is the mathematical study of change. It’s a difficult bit of mathmanship used to solve complex problems. So why would the President of the United States be resorting to calculus? Consider that calculus comes in two main flavors, differential calculus which is concerned with the slope of a line or curve and integral calculus which can be used to calculate the volume of stuff under a curve.

I used to like the problems we were given in integral calculus where we were asked us to find the volume of the resulting shape if the curve was rotated around the X axis. I liked these problems because I would think of the resulting shape as a hunk of wood rotating between centers on my lathe – yeah, my mind has a tendency to wander a bit. If you want to know more about calculating the volume of a rotational function (perhaps you want to be reminded of something you used to know, or you want to feel good about having made it this far in life without needing calculus) take a look at this video. It’s pretty cool and the guy makes it seem easy until you realize that you don’t remember how to find f(x) dx. Wow, I guess it’s safe to say that I wandered off course here too.

OK, back to President Obama. Why is he hiring Kahn Academy graduates to help him figure out where to draw the line between security and civil rights? The answer iimages easy. The volume under that line is people, and people vote. It’s not enough to balance security and civil rights philosophically by piling up security stuff on one side of a teeter-totter and civil rights stuff on the other and see if you can get it to stay horizontal. Politicians today want to be a lot more precise. In addition, this is one of those quirky issues where the people who are normally on one side of the political teeter-totter will actually line up on both sides. When you start dividing people, you need calculus. The President’s math guys have to try to come up with a function that describes the point where a person tips from feeling secure to feeling violated. They have to do that for many different groups of people and then they have to figure out how many people are in all those groups (under that curve). Mara was right, it is calculus.

President Lincoln said:

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Honest Abe might not have ever gotten to all of the people, but if he had had a better understanding of calculus, he probably could have fooled a lot more people way more often.

14 thoughts on “Basic Math or Calculus or Something Else?

Add yours

  1. Well, if you consider what the NSA does as integral to the ongoing security of the United States – nay, the entire free world…

    I’m not going to come down on either side if that one. However, it’s virtually guaranteed that we know exactly where 98% of Congress will land on the subject. The Republicans will be against it and the Democrats will be for it. (The other 2% will be the few people who actually vote with their conscience and think about what their constituents might actually feel about it.)

    If you accept that’s what will happen, it’s not calculus; it’s ridiculous.



  2. Wow, Marc, you reduced that to very simple math indeed. You’re probably right. I’ve always been amazed that people are, or appear to be surprised to learn that this stuff has been happening. I guess politics has never been easy to figure out and it’s probably never really been about what people really want. Thanks.


  3. Pictures – I I used this picture before but it’s the best illustration math at work that I have.
    The illustration is hand drawn and evidence of why I don’t normally illustrate this blog. WordPress added the border and I wasn’t able to make it go away :(


  4. I have had to learn and re-learn Calculus on three occasions. Once, when at school at the age of 15; once when starting at the Open University when 29 and again when studying pure Maths (sorry Math) at the OU when 34. If President Obama is anything like me, he will fake Calculus rather than learning it again!


  5. I can do math, but really do hate to. But I think Obama is trying to pull a slight-of-hand trick. By diverting our attention to the workings of the NSA, does he suspect we will forget all his mistakes?


    1. I’m sure there is a special math class on set theory for politicians too. Whether we focus on those isolated areas or the places where they converge.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.


  6. Well, I admit skiping the calculus part when I read your interesting post. In French or in English, I flunk. But I like how you tie this lesson into a political post. I love politics in both countries. This NSA thing has made the headlines in Europe (more in Germany than anywhere else). It’s a legit concern to wonder if all that spying is necessary to protect our country and ultimately all countries. I absolutely like Lincoln’s quote. And NPR is also one of my favorite sources of information.


    1. Thanks. I generally shy away from politics as it has become so divisive in this country. Perhaps it is that way everywhere, I don’t know. I like NPR news and I like BBC news. I know that all news providers have a bias, but those two seem to consider things from all angles (at least to some degree). I wonder how much of the reaction to the spying is ‘putting on a show’ or posturing, I can’t believe it was that much of a surprise. I do like the way communities such as Word Press have put me in touch with interesting people from other places. I think being informed is better than the alternatives. Thanks again for reading,


  7. I can’t say anything about the US politics that I have not read; and I’d rather read fiction than politics. It is one of the subjects that perpetually depress me. (The other is child-abuse.) Anyway, I love Maths too much, and I’m thinking that your government is probably integrating the probabilities of everybody in the world becoming a terrorist. And when you integrate things, you end up with bigger, more complex things. Integrate the whole world, using the variables governing each person’s life, and you have a ghostly ghastly monstrosity with which to battle. Maybe it’s what scares the NSA so that they spy on everybody.


    1. You’re so right. There have been some true horror stories about the misuse of math (sorry maths). It’s one of the underlying reasons for the financial crisis in 2008. People saw that investment strategies looked better when they tweaked certain variables, but of course they didn’t understand the model well enough to know what they were tweaking. I hear these stories, I shake my head and sometimes I feel I have to share what rattles to the floor. Thanks for the comment.


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