Excessively Abelian?

Those who know either me or this blog will foresee that this post will be about commuting.  In an Abelian group – named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Abel – all the elements commute.  Whilst I have known the name of Abel for 30 years, it was only this week reading Finding Moonshine by Marcus du Sautoy that I realised what a short and tragic life he led.  Compared to Abel, one W A Mozart Esq had a good innings – though, when it comes to the foundation of group theory, Galois wins in the dying young stakes at only 20 (in a duel).  In its early days, group theory was a pretty dangerous subject – though I believe is a rather safer choice today.

Those of a less mathematical bent (what were you thinking?) will be pleased to know that the educational portion of this post is now over and I shall revert to the more humdrum definition of commuting.  If I adhered to the principles of the late Lord Reith, I would now go on to inform and entertain – but we all know that isn’t going to happen.

I am lucky enough to work from home most of the time, and so rarely have to commute.  However, I have served my time as a commuter (and may yet be sentenced again) and so know the general form.  A large chunk of your life is consumed, in addition to that spent working, travelling to and from your place of employ.  This is normally spent on a packed train or stuck in traffic (or, if really lucky, some of both) – adding to the time-taken and general stress and unpleasantness of the whole exercise.  On a recent work-related excursion to the capital during the rush hour I found myself wondering how so many people have wound up in this situation.  I can’t imagine anyone wants to spend so much of their life commuting (though I used to find it a good opportunity to read and catch up on podcasts), yet as a society we doom so many to this fate.

The costs to the nation must be astronomical.  To start with we have the cost in time and money to the commuters, likely to be accompanied by a reduction in their productivity at work and utility to society as a whole.  All those journeys add to injuries and deaths in rail and road traffic accidents and the air pollution produced leads to many premature deaths and additional calls on the resources of the NHS each year.  As a country, the UK needs to maintain more and wider roads, plus parking capacity at the ends of the journey.  The railways need additional capacity in rolling stock, track and signalling just to service the rush hours.  The increased wear-and-tear also increases the costs of maintaining all this infrastructure.  And this is a far from exhaustive list of the costs (a slightly tired list at best).

How did we let this happen?  In slightly iffy weather – ¼” of snow perhaps – we are advised to avoid travelling unless absolutely necessary and the economy doesn’t seem to collapse (though retailers will use it as an excuse for any poor results for the next year or two).  Commuting must be taking a huge bite out of our GDP and can’t be doing much for people’s broader happiness.  I must assume that jobs tend to be concentrated where people either can’t afford to live or don’t want to live.  Sadly, one of the metrics which seems to be used to measure the success of a government seems to be how much more unaffordable they can make housing during their tenure. Despite an economic record that can most kindly be described as “patchy” (great if you’re a billionaire, less good if you’re disabled), the current chancellor has been very successful in creating a housing bubble.  I do fear that in the not very distant future, only Russian oligarchs, oil sheikhs and Hollywood stars will be able to afford to live in London (though will mostly leave their homes empty) adding still further commuting – or leading to the complete collapse of that city’s economy.  Perhaps a good metric would be the number of new jobs created, or better the sum product of jobs and salaries, outside of a major conurbation – or as a start, just outside Greater London.  Actually, the sum product of jobs and salaries either created (via their policies, or more commonly in their imagination) or destroyed by a government (directly in the case of the public sector, via their policies or in their opponent’s imagination otherwise) would be rather an interesting number.

I’m not entirely sure, in these days of electronic communication, why so many jobs have to be concentrated in a few conurbations.  In my experience of office life, people rarely speak to the person sitting next to them (preferring the passive-aggressiveness of email) let alone visit a colleague on another floor or worse trudge to a distant part of the city.  For a fraction of the cost of all the additional road and rail infrastructure we seem to need each year, I suspect every home, garden shed and cardboard box in the land could have state-of-the-art 3D video conferencing installed – though getting people to use it and actually talk to each other may be more of a challenge.  I’ll admit screens aren’t ideal, so people could actually go see their colleagues from time-to-time: once a fortnight, say (but not all of the same day, obviously).  Basically we could save travelling for when it is really needed or for the pursuit of fun and it might once again be a pleasure to journey by road or rail.

This would need some structural changes, I’ll admit – for a start, the whole basis of season tickets would need to be changed – but surely it has to be worth a go!   We will, however, have to overcome our societal obsession with house prices, but I can suggest tons (or tonnes for the metric among you) of more interesting topics for the middle-classes to discuss over dinner – why not start with a little group theory?

Fighting yesterday’s battles

I think one of the problems with governments is that they feel the need to govern.  This leaves them with the idea that they should be doing something, should always be busy legislating away.  This is a great way to spend money – which otherwise might have to be used to support worthy causes – and keeps our struggling management consultancy and legal sectors going in these difficult times.  Not so sure it’s doing much for the fortunes of UK plc, or its citizens…

Today, Michael Gove – who frankly could do with a time-consuming hobby – has announced yet more changes to our education system.  He seems keen on students learning the 12 times table (as I did, though in my case this was probably still a residual memory of pounds, shillings and pence at play) and learning “facts”.  He also seems keen that all knowledge is assessed by carrying out one-off tests in June.  I have much sympathy with this approach as it matches my own upbringing (I am of a similar age to Mr Gove) and I was always very good at regurgitating facts (and still am given half a chance).  I particularly like the idea of having to learn some poetry by heart – I never really got to do this, and feel it might come in handy (though would be a lot less impressive if lots of young people can do it too).  Unlike Mr Gove, I don’t necessarily think it is a good plan to inflict my ill-thought out gut-reactions on a generation of this country’s children.

As with so much government policy, I feel that Mr G is preparing our children for life in the 1980s – and unless he is also working on some major advances in temporal engineering this is a decade they are unlikely to experience first hand.  I would suggest that knowledge of a barrage of facts historical (even should they be in order categorical) has never had less value than it does today (unless his plan is that the UK’s fortunes will be restored by winning pub quizzes across the world).  Any self-respecting young person can find facts in the twinkling of a smart phone, though sadly these facts may be hiding needle-like in a haystack of dis-information.  What we should probably be teaching the young to do is to separate facts from plausible and partisan fictions – though such skills may not appeal much to a politician.  I can’t imagine that knowing the data of the Battle of Waterloo is going to help much in the international job market of 2020 or 2030 – though some overview of the chronology of world history and how to understand why things happen might be.

I’m also not wholly convinced about the value of the 12 times table,: I’m a big fan of mental arithmetic, but to be honest kids would be better of learning the tricks (and cheats) of how to do this than pfaffing around with multiples of 12 (now, 16 I could understand as this has some use via hexadecimal).  I was a terrible show-off at school (and not much has changed) and learned the 13 times table – but rarely have to move beyond the 10 times table in real life as low animal cunning avoids one having to use anything higher.

I think, in general, beyond the ability to use English to communicate successfully and to understand mathematics sufficiently to know when one is being conned (as one will be on a daily basis – either intentionally or through the ignorance of others), any other skills are nice to have and could come from anywhere in the vast smorgasbord of knowledge that exists.  Education should act to pass on the joy of learning, teaching how to find out information and how to generalise and extrapolate from what you already know (and how not to!).  I’d also suggest any learning relating to the creativity or the arts might be a good bet – I suspect that even by 2030 these skills will not have been supplanted by computers and, if we manage to retain any culture of our own, might still be a valuable export (as they are today).  However, I suspect we shouldn’t be too prescriptive, we should perhaps let a thousands flowers bloom and hope some of them make sense later rather than sticking all of our eggs into rather a small basket.

This is not the only area where current government policy seems to be pandering to my prejudices – it really is the right time to be forty-something.  Despite the occasional dodgy experience, I am a big fan of the railways and have always been impressed by heavy engineering and fast trains.  As a result, HS2 would seem to be tailored to tick all my boxes (which is fine between consenting adults in the privacy of their own home).  However, with mature reflection it might perhaps not seem like quite such a great idea.  I believe it will knock 30 minutes off the journey time from London and Birmingham (and presumably the other way as well), but won’t be doing this until the 2030s.  Given that it is already quite possible to work very successfully on the train – Virgin has enviably reliable wifi, if rather iffy mobile reception on its trains – what is the business person gaining after this very long wait?  Wouldn’t they rather have a decent, reliable service today?  Will people still need to travel for business meetings in the 2030s?  Once again, this strikes me as an investment that if made in the 1980s would be of huge benefit to the UK today – but I have my doubts about how valuable it will be in 20 years time.  I think I would make a similar argument about expanding London’s airports – we are once again solving yesterday’s problems but with a delivery time in the rather distant future.

A final current example might be the willingness to throw money at EDF in the hope they will build a nuclear power station in the UK.  As recent news has shown, we are likely to suffer a shortage of power in the next five years – but sadly a new nuclear power station is unlikely to arrive until the mid 2020s.  Much of the money invested will, presumably wind up in France, so this seems to be an infrastructure project to boost the flagging French economy and to deliver a solution to the UK a good five years after the problem (is anyone else thinking of aircraft-free aircraft carriers?).  Now, if we’d done this 10 years ago we’d be sitting pretty with plenty of low carbon generation to meet our electricity needs: once again, fighting yesterday’s battles.

I’m all for investing in our young people and our infrastructure – but perhaps short-term, less prescriptive objectives might be a better route to a successful tomorrow?  Neither governments (of any political persuasion or nationality) nor major corporations have proved even remotely adept at predicting what will be relevant 20 years in the future.  Nor have either proved all that good at delivering very large projects on time or budget (or even anywhere Ryanair would be willing to land and claim was close).  So, perhaps we should favour policies which spread our eggs across a lot more (lower cost) baskets.  After all, it is an awful lot of our money they are betting on these horses – they could at least try an each-way bet, surely?