April 26, 2002

I've always had a really hard time with numbers. In spite of the fact that I work with and program computers, mathematics has always been nearly opaque to me. This is not from a lack of trying mind you. Several times in my career I've felt stymied by my lack of understanding, and have tried real hard to learn the principles behind both basic and advanced mathematics. I nearly always come away with a fuzzed brain and not much more understanding than I had to begin with.

Discreet mathematics was the worst. In this, you must not answer "what is 3x3?", but rather "why is 3x3 = 9?", and "prove that 3x3 always = 9. Now." At the time I had the very real problem of wanting to know who cared why 3x3=9, but I now see learning to answer these basic questions would've lead me to understand the principles behind figuring out how to prove stuff you don't already know. I honestly regret that I just can't do these sorts of things, and envy people who can.

Because of this difficulty, I developed any number of apparently unique "crutches" to help me get through the daily hell of the various math classes I was forced to take throughout my life. Ellen thought these crutches were bizarre and interesting enough that they would make a good essay, so here goes:

You must remember that this stuff was cooked up by a particularly imaginative six to eight year old kid trying really hard not to do his homework, because a) it was unbelievably boring and b) it was a foregone conclusion the answer he arrived at would be wrong.

Basic Math According to a 6 Year Old Math Clutz

  • Numbers have sex. No, not like that, 6 year olds don't think like that. There are boy and girl numbers. 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 10, 11, and 12 are boys, 3, 6, 8, and 9 are girls. Teens after that are the same sex as their last number. Beyond teens, they're the sex of the first number.
  • Some numbers "fit" together. 6 & 4 "fit" by turning 4 upside down and dropping it into 6. This turns it into 10. 8 & 2 the same way. In fact, in general, numbers over 5 always have "sockets" to accept numbers under 5.
  • If a number "overflows" it's socket, you subtract the socket amount from the number, and add that to 10 and the answer is always right (I still do math this way. Really!)
  • Some numbers "get along", others don't. Some numbers are ambitious, others aren't. Some have ages.
  • All numbers like to be added and multiplied, because it makes them bigger. Some numbers like to be subtracted, but only when it's easy to figure out the difference. No number likes to be divided, because division, especially long division, is confusing and hard.
  • 1 is a cool guy because nobody can get very far with him, so they mostly leave him alone. Even division is easy with 1.
  • 2 is a tired old man sick of people making him turn stuff even.
  • 3 is a mean number because she's the mother of 6 and 9 and 12 (first 3 multiples of 3) and she's sick of her kids.
  • 4 likes 3 because she allows him to turn into 12 when multiplied and 7 when added. 4 likes 6 because she lets him turn into 10 when added. 4 likes 8 cos 8 is his daughter 2 different ways (multiplication and addition).
  • 5 cooler than 1 because he can turn any number into an easy-to-figure-out product. He also helps turn all the small numbers into big numbers when added. 5 gets along with everyone because of this. 5 doesn't have a "socket", he has a platform that other numbers stand on to turn into bigger numbers when added, but the small numbers aren't real happy about it because the platform isn't tall enough to turn them into 10 or more.
  • 6 is very ambitious, and likes anyone that can turn her into 12 (she likes herself a lot). 7 is a particular favorite, because that gets her to 13, one more than 12. 8 is not so good, because 6 thinks 4 is a dork and 8 turns her into 14. She doesn't like 5 one bit, because 5 will only get her to 11. 6's socket holds exactly 4.
  • 7 is a cool customer but sort of intimidating, because adding him to and multiplying him by stuff can lead to unpredictable things. 7 gets along with 6 but is embarrassed by her because she's always trying to get him to turn her into 13. He likes 8 a lot because multiplying by her turns him into 42, which is about as close as anyone can get to 40 without being 8. 7's socket holds exactly 3.
  • 8 is intimidating because she's so big and multiplication can do really wonky things sometimes when it involves her. 8 likes 7 because he's cool and they can make really big numbers together. She likes 9 even more. She likes 5 best of all because 5 turns her into 40 and everyone knows 40 is a cool number. 8's socket holds exactly 2.
  • 9 is a nice number. Everyone likes 9 because it's so easy to figure out what happens when you do nearly anything with 9. Adding and subtracting and even multiplication are a breeze. 9 is taller than everyone else, but is cool about it so it doesn't cause a lot of friction. 1 likes 9 a lot because he gets to turn into 10 when added to her. 9's socket holds exactly 1.
  • 10 wears a tuxedo because he is excellent at multiplication, and everyone really likes him because of this. He's even easy with division when you learn about decimals.
  • 11 is a quirky professor type number, because he kind of clones all the other numbers when you multiply them by him. He hates numbers bigger than 9, and figuring out the bigger numbers is always really hard because of this.
  • 12 is the school professor of numbers. He makes you have to remember all these really weird combinations that don't make much sense. Nobody likes 12 very much, except 6, but even she doesn't like to be multiplied by 12 all that much. This all changed completely when I figured out that 12 was half a day and 24 was a full day. Then 12 was really cool because you could divide up all his results into day sections.
  • 13 and above was where "dragons be". You didn't have to learn multiplication tables past 12 (thank god), so they represented the infinite jungle where you always got F's no matter how hard you tried.
  • 0 by itself isn't even a person, it's a mysterious force. Since it's so easy to figure out what happens when you tinker with 0s, they don't have time to develop a personality. A zero at the end of a number just multiplies the number by 10.
  • Negative numbers are cool because they're kind of like antimatter and turn all the rules upside down. They also confuse other people, which is even better. Negative numbers all have goatees (even the girls) because that's how you tell evil star trek people apart on that episode where the transporter breaks.

These were the rules that got me through school. Yes, they're really weird, and no, they didn't (and still don't) work very well. The biggest problem was that they were slow. I've always pictured normal people as having these calculators in their heads that just squeeze out the right numbers like a playdough toy. I was always the last one to finish a math test, which affects me to this day when I take other kinds of tests (must finish fast, must hurry must hurrymustnotbelast). It made tutoring me in math nearly impossible, because what was going on inside my head didn't even vaguely resemble what was going on inside the tutor's head. It was always a case of getting the right answer for the wrong reasons.

They also broke down completely when confronted with complex mathematics like algebra, calculus, and the aforementioned discreet mathematics. A visualization system like mine just can't cope when the numbers get replaced by letters and everything gets abstracted and distorted, like looking through a prism.

Fortunately computers aren't just about math (otherwise I'd be out of a job), they're also heavily based on logic. And logic is where I really shine... boolean math, which is all about logic, is very easy for me and I can reduce a complex logic statement, and get the answer right, in a big hurry. I sometimes think that doing boolean math for me must feel like what doing arithmetic feels like for others... natural and reflexive.

Of course, this doesn't help all that much when it's time to figure out the tip. That's why I let Ellen pay :).

Posted by scott at April 26, 2002 10:46 AM

eMail this entry!

This is a joke, right?

Posted by: Pat on April 26, 2002 03:28 PM

Nope. That's really what went on in my wee little head. I have a really hard time understanding why folks get so disturbed by this.

Posted by: Scott on April 26, 2002 03:32 PM

I am not disturbed just amazed that your wee little head could figure all of that out. You lost me after about the third line. I wasted all that money with a tutor, Rememeber Mrs. Gray?

Posted by: Pat on April 26, 2002 05:04 PM

Ah, Scott, you could be a misunderstood genius, as genius always is.
I love the way you personified the numerals, very original.
OK Missle man, here's an easy quiz ;
What is the biggest number you can make ?

Posted by: Joe Connolly on April 30, 2002 04:49 AM

Kind of a vague question, but here goes:

The most widely accepted "Largest Number" is the Googolplex,
not to be confused with the search engine of a similar name. In short, a googol is 10 to the 100'th power, and a googolplex is 10 to the googol power, or a 1 with 10 to the power of 100 zeros behind it. A really complex explanation of what this means is here.
An excerpt:

In other words, a Googolplex is a quantitative measure of an extension (to a much larger system) of the temporal periods expressed by such colloquial phrases as "until the cows come home," which would give recurrence times that would presumably be long in human terms but much shorter than a Googolplex if these smaller systems (e.g., of cows and their home) would actually last long enough.

But this question is phrased in such a way as to remind me of all those funky pop-quiz math word problems I always flunked in grade school, so I suspect that this isn't the right answer :).

Posted by: Scott Johnson on May 1, 2002 09:00 AM

Oh come ON, guys! I am going to do a Google search and buy something neat. LOL @ Scott, Joe and google what ever!

Posted by: Pat on May 1, 2002 11:53 AM

sidenote, minor error, you stated:

He (7) likes 8 a lot because multiplying by her turns him into 42, which is about as close as anyone can get to 40 without being 8.

however, multiplying 7 by 8 results in 56, 42 is the product of 7 and 6,

Posted by: lee on August 11, 2002 12:14 PM

Well don't that just say it all. I'm not sure whether to fix it or to leave it as-is, a testamony to the inadequacy of my own math system. :)

Thanks for commenting! :)

Posted by: scott on August 11, 2002 03:00 PM

PLEASE change the format back to the original. Who's idea was this anyway.

Posted by: Pat on August 24, 2002 03:45 AM

Finally I find someone who did math like I did! All numbers up to 10 had personalities and likes and dislikes and all math problems were really stories. My answers were always wrong, but the solutions were so much more entertaining!

Posted by: Kate on October 2, 2002 03:35 PM

Well at least I have one other person around here who doesn't get all wild-eyed and freaky when I explain how I do math in my head.

Did you end up last to finish the test in your class too?

Posted by: scott on October 2, 2002 07:49 PM


Posted by: Kate on October 7, 2002 12:51 PM

what if your a guy?

Posted by: airy on March 7, 2006 09:25 PM
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