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Reproduced from The Boston Globe Magazine, April 29, 2001. Dave Barry is a syndicated columnist.

Dave Berry

Numbers racket

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 George W. 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 $4.25. (They also invented the SATs, although they got very low scores be- cause, in those days, there were no pencils. )

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.


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 AEPO1/ 4$34.57 + T«( -SA?)( + N- SOB!)( -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 entrees, and H is hydrogen.

Using this equation, our four co-workers can easily calculate that each one owes exactly, let's see...carry the 7...OK, it would probably be some- where 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 that 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 American Civil Liberties Union will get the US 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.

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