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Down for the count Down for the count
by Jan Sand
2006-11-16 09:36:00
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These fickle fingers are, in all probability, why I am comfortable with the idea that five plus five equals ten. If I, and the majority of other humans, were habitually shoeless, and we had reasonably good eyesight, ten plus ten would probably be equal to ten, although the two summed tens would undeniable be called something other than ten.

Mathematicians who press the point have indicated that ten is merely a convenient number boxing in a uniform collection of digits which could be anything from one to something less than infinity.

Our computers who are too stupid to count to more than one do rather well with this level of idiocy where one plus one equals ten because they do it at blinding speed. Equally, since the essential basic component of our nervous systems is the neuron which can only fire or not fire, it might be that our thinking apparatus also counts only up to one. But those simplistic mechanisms, somehow, became confused by our most useful hands terminating in our useful fingers.

As a child, I learned to count well before I entered school and numbers in the decimal system became basic useful tools for tying down quantities. Early days in school entangled me with arithmetic where we were taught to arrange the familiar numbers in mysterious rows and columns for processing in primary procedures. The arrangement of numbers themselves were considered too obvious to explain so we merely accepted that ten and one hundred were conventional setups of zeros and ones without getting the gist of why numbers were arranged that way.

So, after arranging the primary digits in these unexplained rows and columns we either added or subtracted the digits and learned to carry extra ones in a strange kind of religious ceremony and sometimes, if we did this stuff properly, got the approved answer. I always had the feeling that addition was somehow good and subtraction was evil and the subtraction process was where the good guys on top were attacked by the bad guys on the bottom and since, in those early days, we never dealt with negative numbers, the good guys always won. Thus, arithmetic attained a quality of drama.

My memory has always been lousy, especially with numbers. So the next stage which required memorizing the times tables up to twelve was a period of unending torture. I finally got it down but it was like ingesting a meal of live cockroaches and took many nasty experiences with my teachers and my mother who made me write the damned things over and over for weeks before I finally got it down. The experience was traumatic and turned me off for math in general for most of my life. Since it seems mathematics is unpleasant for a great many people; I assume my experience was not unique.

The processes for multiplication and long division and the formalities for dealing with fractions with further strange voodoo columns and constrained manipulations could be memorized but never were laid out as logical procedures. A move into algebra where the alphabet disguised unknown quantities which moved mysteriously behind the scenes became more daunting and dangerous, especially when dealing with farmer x and farmer y who carried mysterious quantities of vegetables and fruits to market. This gave me the strange conviction that Malcolm X had somehow escaped from an algebra problem.

It took a long time for me to fall in love with the concept of mathematics but my initial introduction as a child still remains an intractable barrier to any ease in the subject and forbids my introduction to the wonders of topology and multidimensional space and string theory which remains on the other side of the looking glass. Haldane’s observation that the world is stranger than you can think still permits the unthinkable mathematics of quantum theory to go where my mind will not step and I resent that exclusion.

But more concretely in today’s world where the plight of one miserable deprived child in a nasty world in Darfur or Iraq or many other places can strike a horrified sympathetic chord in my unmathematical mind but the incomprehensible miseries of hundreds of thousands in like circumstances is too abstract for my l mind is overwhelmingly depressing.

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