Dave Barry does the math
Many of us consider Dave Barry to be the best newspaper humorist around. He does have a thing about mathematics. He clearly couldn't stand his math teachers. And he clearly is worried about the state of mathematics in the USA. First below is his latest. I've appended some of the things he's written over the years (three of which appear to be a connected commentary on Isaac Newton — a commentary that took seven and a half years in its telling).
August 31, 2003
The Washington Post
I have here a letter, which I am not making up, from a teacher named Robin Walden of Kilgore, Tex., who states:
“I teach math to eighth-grade students. This is an unnecessary task because they are all going to be professional basketball players, professional NASCAR race car drivers, professional bass fisher people, or marine biologists who will never need to actually use math.”
This is a sad commentary on the unrealistic expectations of today's students. Because the harsh statistical truth is that, in any given group of 10 young people, only a third of them, or 22 percent, will actually succeed as professional bass fishers. The rest will wind up in the “real world,” where, like it or not, they will need a practical knowledge of math.
For example, I recently found myself in a situation at a bank where suddenly, without warning, I had to add up four three-digit numbers by hand.
Fortunately, I went to elementary school in the 1950s, when we were in the Cold War, and American children were forced to learn addition, because the Soviets were making their children learn addition.
Thanks to that training, I knew that, to get the correct answer, I had to “carry” some numbers. Unfortunately, I could not remember how to do this.
For some reason I could remember that “pi” is the ratio of circumference to diameter, but that did not help me in this case. (To be honest, it has never helped me.) But addition had leaked out of my brain, along with subtraction, multiplication, long division, the “cosine,” the Smoot-Hawley tariff, and most of the other things I learned in school, although of course my brain has carefully preserved the following jingle for Brylcreem hair ointment:
Brylcreem, a little dab'll do ya. Brylcreem, you'll look so debonair. But watch out, the gals'll all pursue ya. They'll love to get their fingers in your hair!
Which is a total lie: Touching Brylcreemed hair is like sticking your hand into the nostril of a sick pig. But I digress. My point is that I finally gave up on adding my numbers and asked the bank teller, who added them with a calculator, which uses tiny computer chips, which were invented during the Cold War, which we won. I am not saying this was totally because of my mathematics training; I am just saying it was a factor.
And that is why we must stress to our children how important education is. We must tell them: Study hard! Learn as much as you can! Because we, your parents, are getting stupider by the day. We're experiencing massive Brain Leakage. Soon, even the commercial jingles will be gone, and our heads will actually implode. Before that happens, we need to get out of the driver's seat, and turn the wheel over to you, the younger generation.
Don't ask us what we did with the keys.
June 18, 1989
A major recreational activity for American tourists is attempting to mentally convert everything to U.S. money despite the fact that they possess – study after study has shown this – the mathematical aptitude of cheese.
November 5, 1989
When the hunters were out hurling spears into mastodons, were there also prehistoric guys watching from the hills, drinking prehistoric beer, eating really bad prehistoric hot dogs and shouting “We're No. 1!” but not understanding what it meant because this was before the development of mathematics?
April 28, 1991
In a recent study done by the American Association of Recent Studies, 74 percent of U.S. high school students – nearly half – were unable to solve the following problem:
“While traveling to their high school graduation ceremony, Bill and Bob decide to fill their undershorts with Cheez Whiz. If Bill wears a size 32 brief and Bob wears a 40, and Cheez Whiz comes in an 8-ounce jar, how many times do you think these boys will have to repeat their senior year?”
Here is the ironic thing: America produces “smart” bombs, while Europe and Japan do not; yet our young people don't know the answers to test questions that are child's play for European and Japanese students. What should be done about this? The American Council of Mathematicians, after a lengthy study of this problem, recently proposed this solution: “We tell Europe and Japan to give us the test answers, and if they don't, we drop the bombs on them.”
Those mathematicians! Still bitter about not having prom dates! Seriously, though, this nation is a far cry from the America of the 1950s, when I was a student and we were No. 1 in math and science, constantly astounding the world with technical innovations such as color television, crunchy peanut butter and Sputnik. What was our secret? How did we learn so much?
The answer is that, back then, math was taught by what professional educators refer to as: The Noogie Method. At least this was the method used by Mr. O'Regan, a large man who taught me the times tables. Mr. O'Regan would stand directly behind you and yell: “NINE TIMES SEVEN!” And if you didn't answer immediately, Mr. O'Regan would give you a noogie. You can easily identify us former O'Regan students, because we have dents in our skulls large enough for chipmunks to nest in. Some of us also have facial tics: These were caused by algebra, which was taught by Mr. Schofield, using the Thrown Blackboard Eraser Method. But the point is that these systems worked: To this day, I can instantly remember that nine times seven is around 50.
It's good that I remember my math training, because I can help my son with his homework. He'll be sitting at the kitchen table, slaving over one of those horrible pages full of long-division problems, having trouble, and I'll say, “You know, Robert, this may seem difficult and boring now, but you're learning a skill that you'll probably never use again.” If more parents would take the time to show this kind of concern, we Americans could “stand tall” again, instead of being a lazy, sloppy nation where – prepare to be shocked – some newspaper columnists, rather than doing research, will simply make up the name of the secretary of education.
December 22, 1991
A sport like this does not determine who is No. 1 in the nation by some easy, logical, obvious, namby-pamby Mister-Mathematics-Professor method such as having the two teams actually play on the same football field simultaneously and seeing who gets the most total points. A sport like this determines the No. 1 team by taking polls.
August 22, 1993
Seriously, young people, I have some important back-to-school advice for you, and I can boil it down to four simple words: “Study your mathematics.”
I say this in light of a recent and alarming Associated Press story that said three out of every four high school students – nearly 50 percent-leave school without an adequate understanding of mathematics.
Frankly, I am not surprised. “How,” I am constantly asking myself, “can we expect today's young people to understand mathematics when so many of them can't even ponit their baseball caps in the right direction?”
I am constantly seeing young people with the bills of their baseball caps pointing BACKWARD. This makes no sense, young people! If you examine your cap closely, you will note that it has a piece sticking out the front, called a bill.
The purpose of the bill is to keep sun off your face, which, unless your parents did a great many drugs in the '60s (Ask them about it!), is located on the FRONT of your head.
Wearing your cap backward is like wearing sunglasses on the back of your head or wearing a hearing aid in your nose. (Perhaps you young people are doing this, too. Uncle Dave doesn't want to know.)
So to summarize what we've learned: “FRONT of cap goes on FRONT of head.” Got it, young people? Let's all strive to do better in the coming school year!
We also need to think about getting these math scores up. A shocking number of you young people are unable to solve even basic math problems such as the following:
A customer walks into a fast-food restaurant, orders two hamburgers costing $2 apiece, then hands you a $5 bill. How much change should you give him?
c. None, because the question doesn't say you WORK there. You could just take the money and run away.
The correct answer, of course, is that you should give the customer:
d. Whatever the computerized cash register says, even if it's $154,789.62.
You young people must learn to handle basic mathematical concepts such as this if you hope to become a smug and complacent older person such as myself.
I was fortunate enough to receive an excellent mathematical foundation at Pleasantville High School as a member of the Class of 196.5 Billion Years Ago.
There I studied math under Mr. Solin, who in my senior year tried to teach us calculus (from the ancient Greek words “calc,” meaning “the study of,” and “ulus,” meaning “something only Mr. Solin could understand”).
Mr. Solin was an excellent teacher. Although the subject was dry, he kept the class's attention riveted on him from the moment the bell rang until the moment, several minutes later, when a girls' gym class walked past the classroom windows every single day, causing male students' heads to rotate 90 mathematical degrees in unison, like elves in a motorized Christmas yard display.
During those brief periods when we were facing Mr. Solin, we got a solid foundation in mathematics, learning many important mathematical concepts that we still use in our professional lives as employees of top U.S. corporations.
A good example is the mathematical concept of “9,” which we use almost daily to get an outside line on our corporate phones so we can order Chinese food, place bets, call 1-900-BOSOMS and perform all the vital employee functions that make our economy what it is today.
You young people deserve to have the same advantages, which is why I was so pleased to learn in the newspaper story that some professors have gotten a $6 million federal grant to develop new ways to teach math to high school students.
The professors know this will be a challenge. One of them is quoted as saying, “There is a mentality in this country that mathematics is something a few nerds out there do, and if you don't understand mathematics, it's OK – you don't need it.”
This is a bad mentality, young people. There's nothing “nerdy” about mathematics. Contrary to their image as a bunch of out-of-it, huge-butted Far Side professor dweebs who spend all day staring at incomprehensible symbols on a blackboard while piles of dandruff form around their ankles, today's top mathematicians are exciting, dynamic and glamorous individuals who are working to solve some of the most fascinating and challenging problems facing the human race today (“Let's see, at $2.98 apiece, with a $6 million federal grant we could buy . . . WHOA! That's 2,013,422.82 pocket protectors!”).
So come on, young people! Get in on the action!
Work hard in math this year, and remember: If some muscle-bound Neanderthal bullies corner you in the bathroom and call you a “nerd,” you just look them in the eye and say, “Oh, yeah? Why don't you big jerks . . . LET GO! HEY! DON'T PUT MY HEAD IN THE TOILET! HEY!”
And tell them that goes double for your Uncle Dave.
June 5, 1994
I constantly see evidence that Americans do not understand basic scientific principles. For example, the great mathematician and dead person Sir Isaac Newton (who also invented gravity) proved in 1583 that, no matter how hard you push, you cannot fit an object into an airplane overhead storage compartment if the object is way bigger than the compartment. Americans still do not understand this.
March 16, 1997
Later on Newton also invented calculus, which is defined as “the branch of mathematics that is so scary it causes everybody to stop studying mathematics.” That's the whole POINT of calculus. At colleges and universities, on the first day of calculus class, the professors go to the board and write huge incomprehensible “equations” that they make up right on the spot, knowing that this will cause all the students to drop the course and never return to the mathematics building again. This frees the professors to spend the rest of the semester playing cards and regaling one another with hilarious stories about the “mathematical symbols” they've invented over the years. (“Remember the time Professor Hinkwattle drew a 'cosine derivative' that was actually a picture of a squid?” “Yes! Students were diving out the windows! And the classroom was on the fourth floor!”)
January 2, 2000
But the greatest scientific advance of the century came in 1687, when Sir Isaac Newton, after watching an apple fall off a tree, wrote his famous Principia Mathematica, which states that there is a universal force, called “gravity,” inside apples. Later scientists would expand this definition to include grapefruit, but the basic concept remains unchanged to this day.
April 22, 2001
President Bush says our schools need to do a better job of teaching mathematics, and I agree with him 150 percent. Many high-school students today can't even calculate a square root! Granted, I can't calculate a square root, either, but I USED to be able to, for a period of approximately 15 minutes back in 1962. At least I THINK that was a square root. It might have been a “logarithm.”
But whatever it was, if I had to learn how to do it, these kids today should have to learn it, too. As President Bush so eloquently put it in his address to Congress: “Mathematics are one of the fundamentaries of educationalizing our youths.”
I could not have said it better with a 10-foot pole. We all need mathematics in order to solve problems that come up constantly in the “real world.”
For example, suppose four co-workers go to a restaurant, and at the end of the meal, the waiter brings a bill totaling $34.57. How much, including tip, does each person owe?
If the co-workers do not know mathematics, they will just guess at the answer and put in random amounts of money ranging from $9 to $11, unless one of them is a guy I used to work with named Art, in which case he will make a big show of studying the bill, then put in exactly $4.25.
But if the co-workers know their mathematics, they can easily come up with EXACTLY the correct answer.
They can do this using “algebra,” which was invented by the ancient Persians. (They also invented the SATs, although they got very low scores because in those days there were no pencils.) The way algebra works is, if you don't know exactly what a number is, you just call it “X.” The Persians found that this was a BIG mathematical help in solving problems:
PERSIAN WIFE (suspiciously): How much have you had to drink?
PERSIAN HUSBAND: I had “X” beers.
PERSIAN WIFE: Well, how much is THAT?
PERSIAN HUSBAND: It's a (burp) variable.
PERSIAN WIFE (not wanting to look stupid): Well, OK then.
Historical Footnote: Several years later, when the ancient Romans invented Roman numerals, and it turned out that “X” was actually equal to 10, there was BIG TROUBLE in Persia.
But getting back to the four co-workers at the restaurant: To figure out how much each person owes, they would simply use the algebraic equation AEPO 1/4 $34.57+T((( SA?)(+NSOB!)(-SITE)(H), where “AEPO” is the amount each person owes, “T” is the tip, “SA” is whether the waiter has a snotty attitude, “NSOB” is whether the waiter has a nice set of buns, “SITE” is a variable used if you think somebody in the kitchen is spitting in the entres, and H is hydrogen.
Using this equation, our four co-workers easily can calculate that each one owes exactly, let's see E carry the 7 E OK, it would probably be somewhere between $9 and $11.
So we see that algebra is a vital tool for our young people to learn. The traditional method for teaching it, of course, is to require students to solve problems developed in 1928 by the American Association of Mathematics Teachers Obsessed With Fruit. For example:
“If Billy has twice as many apples as Bobby, and Sally has seven more apples than Chester, who has one apple in each hand plus one concealed in his knickers, then how many apples does Ned have, assuming his train leaves Chicago at noon?”
The problem is that these traditional algebra problems are out of date. Today's young people are dealing with issues such as violence, drugs, sex, eating disorders, stress, low self-esteem, acne, global warming and the demise of Napster.
They don't have time to figure out how many apples Ned has. If they need to know, they will simply ASK Ned, and if he doesn't want to tell them, they will hold him upside down over the toilet until he does.
And then Ned will sue them, plus the school, plus his parents for naming him “Ned” in the first place.
Ultimately the ACLU will get the Supreme Court to declare that the number of apples a student has is protected by his constitutional right to privacy.
So what is the solution? How do we balance our children's need to learn math against the many other demands placed on them by modern life? I believe there IS a solution, one that is both simple and practical.
I call it: “X.”