Mathology 101

Math is hard for many. And harder still for some.
Mathology 101
I knew the day would come. I could have told you in fifth grade that it would. The day I’m talking about is the day my daughter Gracie, then in fifth grade herself, asked for help with her math homework, and I was stumped. In fact, I was more stumped than she was. I tried to multiply this, divide that, and add this to the number in question, but each shot in the numeric night only made the problem more, er, problematic. I had to look Gracie in the eyes and confess that I was mathematically challenged, that her daddy could solve many problems for her but virtually none of the math kind. I wrote a note to her teacher asking for some leniency on grading Gracie’s homework. It was not fair, I pleaded, that she should lose points because fate made her the daughter of a mathematical mental midget.

Math has always been a struggle for me. If you could glimpse into my childhood, you would observe that, in some ways at least, I was being groomed for math success. That’s because my father and his brothers, my uncles, were fond of stumping one another with various mathematical brainteasers such as: If it takes a man-and-a-half to build a house-and-a-half in a day-and-a-half, how many men does it take to build nine-and-a-half houses in six-and-a-half days? Pencils and calculators would come out of pockets and drawers, guesses would be proffered, arguments would ensue. I loved the drama of it all, but not the math. The questions—and the answers—rarely made sense to me, nor did the fact that my dad and his brothers found this more entertaining than, say, going bowling. (The answer to the word problem above? Beats me.)

As a student, I had to study particularly hard just to earn so-so math grades. Come test time, some fearless and fortunate guessing didn’t hurt, and neither did eyes that had the uncanny knack of finding themselves at just the perfect angle to gain a helpful glimpse of another student’s answers.

Still, in high school I never advanced beyond rudimentary geometry and statistics, which was more than copacetic as far as I was concerned. I deployed two survival techniques. The first was to ask lots of questions. The aim here wasn’t so much clarity as it was pacing. The less ground we covered, the better my odds of keeping up—not that I could actually calculate the odds, mind you. The second survival technique was a bit of theater. Any time I was asked to step to the blackboard to complete a problem and then explain to the class how I arrived at my inevitably incorrect answer, I would create a totally bogus and surreal explanation. Usually it sounded something like this:

The answer to this problem is, of course, blatantly obvious: 12x. We find our way to this conclusion by remembering that today is Tuesday, which creates a near virtual certainty that the answer itself will begin with the letter “T,” as in “twelve.” Also near certain is that the answer will include the number “2,” since this is the second day of the school week. As with most math problems there is only one right answer, hence the addition of the numeral “1,” placed before the “2.” Jesus had twelve disciples, which means that the number 12 is rarely misused or misplaced, which does not hold true for half that amount, the number 6—a.k.a. Satan’s integer. Of course, if you halved that number yet again, you’d get “3,” which is symbolic of the Holy Trinity. But I digress. Back to our problem and its solution. So, why the “x”? Again, it’s self-evident. Note how I asked “‘Why’ the ‘x’?” not “‘X’ the ‘why.’” So ‘x’ it is. And there you have it: 12x. Couldn’t be easier.

The teacher would then step in to provide the correct answer and the proper path to it. My silly explanations did nothing to advance the state of mathematics or help any other student who was struggling. But as with the first technique, this storytelling slowed our pace through a textbook in which each chapter got progressively harder and more inchoate. More to the point, I scored brownie points with the teacher, who seemed to appreciate the fact that, despite all the evidence to the contrary and his own dry demeanor, math could be entertaining, even if you had to mock it to make it so. My classmates enjoyed these little diversions, too, if for no other reason than it diverted the teacher’s attention away from the candy bars that they were surreptitiously eating. One teacher let me “teach” an entire class on a couple of occasions. So I guess I am partly responsible for our nation’s pathetic ranking in math skills when compared to other countries, including some we can’t imagine beating us in anything, such as Norway, and others we didn’t even know existed, like Fredonia.

I USED TO think that I would joyfully leave math behind when I left school behind. No such luck. Like everyone else, I swim in numbers every day: from the more behind-the-scenes numbers, like those 1s and 0s that make our computers do what they do, to the more in-our-face numbers, like those on our bank statements. There’s just no hiding from numbers and from math. But as I did in school, I have found ways to manage my digit disability.

I have never been any good at balancing my checkbook, but thanks to online banking, I can now easily keep tabs on my account balance and see how half of my disposable income goes toward those pesky ATM fees. I stopped doing my own taxes years ago when I bought my first home and graduated from the 1040-EZ form to the straight 1040. For that I needed professional help. “I can’t add real well” didn’t seem like the kind of explanation for underpayment of taxes that would go over well with the IRS.

At restaurants, I almost always tip 20 percent. That’s not because I’m generous, it’s just a lot easier than calculating 15 percent. And I absolutely refuse to pull out a calculator, even though I have one on my cell phone. That’s because I don’t want to look like a nerd, and because I always get confused when figuring out percentages. Do I divide the total by .20? Or do I multiply by .05? Or is it multiply by .20 and divide by 5? It’s one thing to find a trigonometry problem frustrating, and something altogether different when an elementary problem blows your mind—especially when you have a calculator in your hand.

Since I co-own and help manage an ad agency, you’d think I could wrap my mind around basic business calculations like accrual and depreciation. But, no they elude me. I’ll ask the CFO or our founder, a former finance guy, for clarification, but that usually only serves to make matters more fuzzy. It’s not because they aren’t clear, it’s because I seem to be missing the entire left hemisphere of my brain. To recast a philosophic observation made famous by Chief Seattle (“All things are connected…”), it’s like whenever you pick out one number, every other number is ultimately attached, including some that have no bearing on the matter at hand. Argh. It makes my brain—well, what’s left of it—hurt.

THERE IS, ODDLY enough, one side of math that I do find intriguing. I call them “gee whiz” facts. For example, take the idea of umpteen possible variations in a particular set. (There is such a figure as “umpteen,” isn’t there?) Now take that once popular brain-teasing toy: the Rubik’s Cube. You’ll recall that the Rubik’s Cube is a six-sided box with nine colored squares on each side that you twist and turn in an attempt to make each side the same color. I never came close to cracking the code, even after one multi-hour attempt on a rainy Saturday afternoon when I was just a lad. On more than one occasion I hurled the psychedelic block across the room and picked up a yo-yo—a more genteel brainteaser. Years later I had an interesting gee-whiz moment that made me feel better about being outsmarted by a piece of plastic. It speaks to a mathematical principle that I can’t name, of course, but that has to deal with variations, as in: If Busken Bakery has 25 different kinds of donuts and pastries, how many different 12-count variations would there be? The Rubik’s Cube gee-whiz factoid is that there are more possible color configurations of the cube than there are inches in the distance light travels—at some 186,000 miles per second—in 100 years. Mind-boggling, no?

Here’s another gee-whiz factoid having to do with exponential power that will blow your mind. Take a sheet a paper and fold it half, and then in half again. Keep doing it. The most you’ll be able to fold a piece of paper over on itself is seven times. Don’t ask me why, that’s physics, which I wasn’t any good at either, largely because it’s just math in disguise. But if you could actually fold a piece of paper over on itself 100 times, do you know how big that theoretical mass would be? Believe it or not, it would be bigger than the known universe. That sounds like one of the math tales I made up in high school, but apparently it’s true.

I suppose math has a good side. It’s the side where the numbers amaze but do not confound. But let’s not get carried away. Math is still no close friend of mine. And neither, I suspect, is my credit card’s 18.9 percent annual interest rate. Whatever that means.

Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki
Originally published in the October 2008 issue.

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