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“Math: Not Even Once” or “Things You Really Can’t Do in Math… Even Once!” December 26, 2013

Filed under: Education,Math — acgheen @ 12:00 am
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“This is your worst subject?” my business professor asked, nodding towards the math classroom.

I nodded rather sheepishly, a bit glad that she didn’t know about my math-centric business background.

“Then I’m impressed,” she replied.  “I’ve been looking over your test while we talked and I could be wrong, but I think you got 100%!”

I felt something inside of me start to glow.  It hadn’t been an easy journey, yet I had to admit that maybe math wasn’t my worst subject anymore.

Unfortunately, this left me with a conundrum.  For weeks, I’d been repeating the slogan, “Math: not even once.”  The phrase was too good to give up, so surely there had to be another way to apply it.  And I found just that in the work of Pierre de Fermat (1601?-1665), a French lawyer who appears to have engaged in mathematical exercises “just for the fun of it”.  His hobby led to some incredible breakthroughs in the field of mathematics (proof that “amateur” is not synonymous with “inept”) and is best known for his contributions to calculus.

According to Fermat, there are two mathematical operations which simply cannot be done… even once.  The first is separating a single cube into two cubes.  Go ahead.  Try it.  It really is impossible!  The second is separating, “a fourth power into two fourth powers, or in general, any power higher than the second, into two like powers.”  (I’d challenge you to try this too, but despite the fact that I do find some math to be enjoyable, I’m not quite ready to tackle this one!)[1]

So what did I learn from all of this?  Quite simply that sometimes in life, what we tell ourselves has more to do with our perceptions of reality than what actually is.  And many times, it’s our ability to question these perceptions (and carefully weigh their alternatives) which leads to our failure or success.  While it’s unlikely that I’ll ever have the computational genius of Fermat, one thing is certain: math and I are not the enemies I thought we were.

[1] While I’d love to take credit for discovering this amazing connection between the popular “Meth: Not Even Once” commercial and Fermi’s last theorem, I have to give credit to the folks on zazzle.com where you can purchase a t-shirt with the theorem in Latin.


“Math: Not Even Once” or “Life as a Professional Shopper” December 19, 2013

Filed under: Education,Math — acgheen @ 12:00 am
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I admit that I didn’t view buying for a corporation as a “numbers job” per se.  In fact, when people asked what I did for a living, I usually responded that I was a professional shopper.  I spent my days browsing catalogs, reviewing trends and sales figures, and negotiating better pricing and payment terms for the products our stores required.  There were trade shows throughout the fall and I found myself in an assortment of locations from Las Vegas to Philadelphia as I scouted for the best deals and the most innovative new products.  To be honest, the job was fun.  It was as much art as science and the math behind it was repetitive and simple.  Still, I continued to repeat the phrase I’d learned in second grade: “I hate math!”

This strange tug-of-war between what I actually did for a living and what I thought I didn’t enjoy continued until the recession hit.  My job was safe through the first part of the downturn and then, in an effort to save money, the company was reorganized and I was cut from the staff.  Individual department managers were eventually to do their own purchasing.  I was handed a severance package and an excellent letter of recommendation and shown the door.

Over the next few months, I searched for employment and, finding it scarce, decided to go back to school.  I would get an degree in Business Marketing and Management (I had, after all, enjoyed the work I’d been doing).  Unfortunately, the pursuit also meant that I had to take a class entitled “Practical Business Math Procedures”.  Muttering the words, “I hate math”, I picked up my book from the campus store and set to work.

Several weeks into the course, it was becoming apparent that I was actually doing quite well.  Thanks to Mom’s hard work and the time I’d spent as a buyer, I was already familiar with most of the concepts being studied.  And the unfamiliar ones only built upon those.  In fact, I found myself relishing problems like:

“If Henry’s Baked Goods makes 3 dozen doughnuts every morning at a cost of 17 cents each and a half-dozen of those doughnuts will spoil before the day is over, how much should he sell them for in order to achieve a 40% markup on cost?”


“Danny’s Outfitters in Boston bought climbing gear for resale.  They purchased 10 ropes at $500, 14 helmets at $25, and 2 dozen chalk balls at 93 cents each.  FOB SanDiego $400.  They were given a discount of 10/5/2 and terms of 2/10 n/30.  Presuming they paid within the discount period, how much did Danny’s Outfitters pay for the gear?”

It wasn’t until I started looking forward to figuring out payroll taxes and effective interest on treasury bills, however, that I began to question my mantra.  Did I really hate math or was it just that I hadn’t enjoyed struggling with it in the beginning?  Was it possible that I only hated numbers because I’d spent so many years telling myself that I did?  (To Be Continued…)


“Math: Not Even Once” or “A Journey Begins” December 12, 2013

Filed under: Education,Math — acgheen @ 12:00 am
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It’s no secret: I hate math.  Just looking at rows of numbers makes my head begin to ache.  To be honest, I’m not certain where my dislike for the subject began.  In the second grade, I was subjected to “experimentation” in which students were taught an “easier” way to add.  The system (known as “touch points”) involved physically touching the tip of your pencil to certain memorized points on every number from 1-9 and counting each point to tally the sum of the numbers.  While, at the time, it was faster than memorizing 5+7=12, in the long-run, it was crippling.

My parents pulled me from the local public school after that year and, for the next several grades, my mother labored diligently to un-teach what I had learned.  I admit to having felt some humiliation at having been the only Jr. Higher I knew who struggled with simple addition.  I could stare for hours at the simplest problems… which made life incredibly difficult when those simple problems became more complex.  Algebra was an exercise in suffering and it seemed nothing short of a miracle that both my mother and I made it through alive.

Of course, some of the difficulty arose from the fact that my parents didn’t want me to receive a merely “acceptable” education.  Graduating with C’s was not an option (at least not when I had ambitions of becoming an astronaut).  Though it likely only happened once or twice, I have vivid recollections of six hours a day being spent reviewing tests which yielded poor grades, slaving until each of the problems had been solved correctly.  Mom didn’t just want me to plug random numbers into the equations – she wanted me to understand why I was plugging those numbers in where I was.  And a failure to find the correct answer on a number of similar problems indicated that I didn’t understand the concept.

As painful as the experience was, I graduated from High School with a higher-than-average ability to perform basic mathematical computations.  (Yay Mom!!)  But I also graduated with a silent, but unspoken belief that Math was a bit like Methamphetamine – something which should not be tried… even once.

I did my best to avoid it at all costs and would have succeeded if not for the fact that I found myself bombarded by numbers nearly everywhere.  At the grocery store, I had to figure out which can of tomatoes was the least expensive. (How many cents per ounce does brand “A” cost?)  At the check register, I had to count back change.  And during inventory, I had to tally quantities of identical items located at opposite ends of the store.  There was no escaping the harsh reality that math was an essential part of everyday life.  Or that I was well prepared to use it in each of these situations.

I’ll admit that the praise I received for being able to accurately compute numbers was a bit of a morale booster.  It this knowledge that led me to make a career choice that shocked my parents, nearly to the point of speechlessness.  When a position as a buyer opened up at my company, I put my name forward for the position.  Yes, I wanted a job that dealt with numbers.  Lots of them.  Constantly.  (To be continued…)


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