Bare Necessities: Math

>> Monday, August 31, 2009

I love Dave Barry. He’s got the kind of turn of phrase I treasure that kills me by inserting something delightfully absurd (but I didn’t see coming) into nearly every sentence. When I was in labor with my eldest daughter, I literally had a friend read Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits out loud. My (now ex) husband insisted 23 hours on pitocin couldn’t have been that bad because I was laughing.

(I still treasure this little gem: “Specifically, it was a Yorkshire terrier, a breed originally developed in England to serve as makeup applicators. A full-grown ''Yorkie'' is about the size of a standard walnut, although it has more hair and a smaller brain.”)

Anywho, although Dave Barry has effectively retired, the Miami Herald has been replaying Dave Barry’s greatest hits and I’m not distribution, so I get something hilarious pretty much every Monday. I love Dave Barry. Have I mentioned that? Today’s article (another reprint), although hilarious, struck a chord with me.

The perception that basic math is of no use.

That just boggles my mind. People are always saying: I never use math. I never use algebra. All that time in school was a complete waste. Folks, if it was, you’ve been shortchanged, seriously. But, more than that, you ought to ask yourself how much your perceptions are responsible for your attitudes about the math you don’t think you’re doing (but, likely, are) and how much harder it is than it has to be.

Now, I can already hear the cacophony of complaints: You’re a Rocket Scientist. Of course, you think math’s easy or useful but, really, when do you really need to use math?

I’ll tell you one thing, I use it a damn sight more outside of work than I do inside. Not that math isn’t important for Rocket Science. Obviously it is, but we use spreadsheets and models and software to do the bulk of our calculations. Which is all the more reason having a basic understanding of math is so important. If I don’t understand how risks pile up, I can use a wrong assumption or miss an error input into a model that delivers an answer 4 or 10 times worse than it should be. I should know what kind of numbers to expect and I should be double checking when things don’t match my expectations. Many an engineering catastrophe stemmed from a number too few people compared and corrected. It happens. I’ve done it and I’ve known others that have done it.

But, even if I were never to use math at work (and I struggle to figure out what work would deprive me of that need), I need it day to day. And so do you. To know you have the right change (which is a small thing) to double check you have the right bill (and that the bill’s correct), which can be a big thing. To ensure that your outflow of cash doesn’t exceed your inflow. True, it’s arithmetic, but it’s algebra, too. If I’m going to be short this week because I’m paying my mortgage, I’d better pull some from savings? How much? I’m going to need at least answer=outflow-(inflow+balance). That, my friends, is algebra. If I buy and sell stuff on ebay or fix up cars or charge by the hour, I’m going to need to understand how to add, subtract, multiply and divide or I can be readily shortchanged and never be the wiser. If I can’t sell things for more than it costs to make and send them, I’m going to work myself into the poorhouse.

If I’m a seamstress, I need to understand basic geometry or I’ll go poor buying too much material or cutting out clothing only to find out I’m half a yard short. If I’m a writer, I better understand what my contracts are netting me for the time I’m spending. If I’m laying carpet or having a roof installed or painting a wall, area makes a difference. Why would I ever need to use pi again? What if I need to put a pathway around my round pool fill in a square area around it with patio stones or mulch?

We pooh-pooh those calculations as not really math which is likely the explanation why we had so many people lose their homes to stupidly expensive mortgages. If you let yourself believe math isn’t important or that you can just “trust” someone (who is likely making money from you) knows what they’re doing, you can hardly be surprised when you get cheated or find that you’ll be facing unexpected fees at a later date. If you can’t double check the calculations, on at least a top level, to make sure everything makes sense, you’ll be sorry later. It’s the kind of thinking that allows us to buy 200 dollar items for nearly twice as much because we amortize them for two years on credit cards at 17% interest. Or lets us think that we can lower down a load weighing twice what we weigh with a simple pulley and never leave the ground.

A basic understanding of math and algebra is absolutely essential for any technical field, but, for regular people, it can also mean the difference between having a life and being had.


  • Roy

    You know, it's funny, but by and large I use a pencil or pen and paper to do most calculations - addition, subtraction, multiplication, division - rather than a calculator. Heh, heh! Of course, I also went to school in the '60s, and the only mathematical calculation device we had back then was a slide rule when you got to the higher maths in high school. I find that using a calculator is more of a chore than doing it out on paper.

    But your right, we use math a lot more than most people are even aware; it's just a part of everyday life, and unless somebody stops us and points it out, we don't even notice that we're working with numbers. And yeah, check those credit card interest rates!

  • Bob Johnson

    I use math a lot at work with purchasing, like you said we all use it more then we know and probably not as much as we should, side note, remember sliderules, I used to love em.

  • flit

    it amuses me whenever another English student tells me they went into English so they won't have to do math - how else do they think they're going to calculate their students' grades?

  • Jeff King

    Yea applied math is easier to learn that theoretic math or explained math.

    I use math all day long. Since I am a masonry foreman, and lay out and bond out 200 million dollar jobs on a daily basis. But it was easy to learn because it is hands on, I can taste it and feel it, I can see it take form, I hate math on paper told/taught by a teacher. It is very hard to keep interested for me.

    But put me in hands on experiences and if thrive in most situations...

  • WillOaks Studio

    Dave cracks me up, too. Every column has at least one...or many...memorable images for me. He's just hilarious! I love math. I build or construct things - sometimes these are art or artistically inclined, things I make up from scratch. I'm guessing if I didn't get that good math education, thanks to the Cold War, I wouldn't have a clue how to actually make the ideas that pop into my head. I really enjoyed your blog post today!!

  • Shakespeare

    I'm with Flit on this. I went into English so that all I had to do was the basic elemental foursome: add, subtract, divide, and multiply. A tiny bit of algebra, and I'm good.

    Richard actually does the bigger stuff--taxes, budgets, etc. I just pay the checks on time (because deadlines are the stuff of dreams for my OCD)... makes us a good team!

    Good blog! My daughter is struggling with math right now, but I push it like I do reading--both will serve her well!

  • Quadmama

    I joked that I majored in journalism so I wouldn't have to do much math... so imagine my disappointment when I found myself using math on a regular basis to back time a news cast (ie making sure you didn't runover into the network time). I don't like math but I will never convey that to my daughters. I want them to have a better time with it than I did. They'll need it down the road.

  • The Mother

    Whenever we have to calculate how many sq ft of paint we need, I hand it to a boy. Real world applications are imperative.

    By the way, I had to explain how to calculate diameter and perimeter to a lady in the cloth store one day--she was supposed to make fifties circle skirts. When I got to pi she almost fainted. Poor thing.

  • Patricia Rockwell

    Love Dave Barry too. I just got through reading his ode to colonoscopies on the bulletin board at my gym.

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