A Rant about Math

In which I take issue with this culture of fearing and mocking intelligence, and the T-shirt that makes it sound as if it’s all right to do so.

I know you’ve seen it–on either the bumper sticker or the T-shirt or the meme.  The sentiment that reads, “Yet another day has passed and I didn’t use Algebra.” Or the one that says, “I’m an English major; you do the math.” I understand the humor behind it; it’s punny, it’s sarcastic, it’s ironic. Heck, I’ve even used some version of it myself.  I regret that. I don’t find it funny any longer. The more I think about it, the more disturbed I get. No, it’s not a major important issue in our society, but it troubles me nonetheless. Here’s why.

First the goal of this sentiment is to make the displayer feel superior to all those teachers and students who love math and use it; and it somehow tries to make their accomplishments unimportant. As an author you’d think I never use math, but you’d be wrong. Just the other day someone asked me to edit an essay. I moved sentences around to form a logical argument and wrote in my comments, “See, you still use your Geometry for writing. Remember proofs?” Geometry proofs teach logical thinking. It doesn’t require numbers.  And looking at royalty statements, taxes, business expenses–all a part of writing–does require some number acuity.

Here’s one for Algebra that does use numbers: if you go the grocery store and they offer 5 for $3.00, but you only want to buy one. Ta da: Algebra. So what? you say. You still don’t really use it. Well, do you really use history, art, dance, PE, wood shop, or science every day? And having read many, many essays, emails, tweets, and manuscripts, I would say some of you don’t even use English every day. Besides, you probably do use Algebra for simple equations more often than you think, only it’s so ingrained in your head that you don’t even recognize you’re using them (think about calculating expenses, or date entry, or comparing the price of cell phones.)

And there are many many people who do “use” Algebra every day. And even higher levels of math. Robot Guy is one of them. He told me to consider formulae and equations as a language. I use words to create; he uses math. Engineers are highly creative people. Their language is just different.

Math is about problem solving. The skills you learn, the way you look for solutions is math. It’s something that your brain was trained to do in math class. Besides, why is it bad to have knowledge that you don’t necessarily use everyday? I like to learn things just for the sake of knowing them. You never know when you may appear on Jeopardy! Or just play Trivial Pursuit with the family.

I don’t like the trend I’ve seen lately of intelligence shaming. Suddenly being smart is not something people value. TV does it. Look at the Big Bang Theory, a show I like and enjoy, but when you think about it, it makes fun of those members of society we label smart. No, I don’t believe going to school necessarily equals being smart, but this fear of knowledge that pervades our culture right now is a trend I’d like to see stop.

Yeah, I’m taking this too seriously. You don’t have to tell me.


Books I’m reading now:

Harry Potter und die Kammer des Schreckens by JK Rowling

Math is your friend

Lately I’ve been reading contemporaries, and I’ve found errors. Not grammatical, although there have been some of those as well, but math errors. Many of us authors are older, shall we say middled-aged, and what I’ve noticed is our age peeking through. What I mean is we haven’t been careful with our math.

Math, you say? That’s why I’m a writer: so I don’t have to do math. Not so fast, grasshopper. Math is everywhere, and it’s important to the logic of the story.

Here’s an example. A character appears in a contemporary and likes or enjoys something that they are too young to like. Recently I read a 2011 novel where the 30 year-old heroine blasted Bon Jovi. Now she can like Bon Jovi but some consideration or explanation was necessary to explain her predilection for that particular band. It’s 2011. Subtract thirty years, you get 1981, the year she was born. Most likely her favorite band would be someone she listened to when she was, say, 15-18. Late teens. That’s the band she would rock out to. Someone like Alice in Chains, Nirvana, or whatever . While Bon Jovi was  performing in the 1990’s (and still is), the choice of it still feels a decade off.

Second example: a story from 2012. A seventy-five year old women is described as being cool and calm, someone who wouldn’t even swoon over Valentino. Valentino was a heartthrob in the 1920s. A seventy-five year old would have been born in 1937, after Valentino was dead. Let’s say eighteen again for the age of swooning. That puts us at 1955. GIrls swooned over Brando and James Dean in the 50’s. Or Rock Hudson if you liked the clean-cut type. Or even Elvis. But not Valentino.

I have a third example from a historical manuscript I read. The author made allusions to actors who would have been children (9 or 10) at the setting of the novel. Not good.

So do the math. Really. Even in writing.


Books I’m reading now:

Finding Her Son by Robin Perini