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The algebra agnostic

With the arrival of the back-to-school season, it’s all but inevitable that your youngsters will come home with some embarrassingly uncomfortable questions.

That is exactly happened to me back when our youngest son began seventh grade. Seemingly apropos of nothing, the boy up and asked me one of those questions. The kind of query that can cause a parent to blush and to squirm with discomfort.

The lad was quietly working on his homework when he looked up at me with those big, blue, innocent eyes and asked, “Dad? What’s the inverse tangent of an angle if its cosine is 10?”

The question left me thoroughly stunned. I couldn’t have been more shocked if the child had recited the Gettysburg Address in Swahili.

Striving mightily to conceal my surprise, I grabbed a pocket calculator that happened to be lying nearby. “Well, let’s see here,” I began as my brain frantically scrambled for an answer, any answer.

“They tried to throw you off with that cosine nonsense. What you really need is your sine. I was born in late October which makes me a Scorpio, so you punch the numbers that spell ‘Scorpio’ using the 1 for a, 2 for b and so on. Then you press ‘play’ and…”

“Dad! That can’t be right! And besides, that’s not even a pocket calculator! You just re-programed the VCR!”

I hate to admit this, but it’s true: I am a math mutineer. A numerically challenged numbskull. An algebraic agnostic.

The only formal algebraic tutoring I ever received took place toward the end of the school year in eighth grade. As spring exploded outside the classroom window, my math instructor, Mrs. Hanson, began to sneak letters into some of the interminable equations she was scrawling on the blackboard.

The entire cosmos of mathematics suddenly became as opaque as the inside of a black cow at midnight. It was way too abstract for my underpowered cerebellum to comprehend. I began to make my math homework into paper airplanes to take my mind off my inevitable “F.”

To this day, I become instantly lost whenever I’m confronted by an equation that contains bits of the alphabet. But if you want a paper airplane that glides straight and true, I’m your guy.

Why are we so enamored with numbers? Is it because we think that numbers can somehow force order onto our chaotic universe? Given the combined effects of entropy and randomness, why even bother?

For example, let’s say that I have a field of corn. Just before harvest, a squirrel randomly steals a random ear of corn. The tiny amount of grain that the squirrel pilfered may have been enough to nudge the scale up one infinitesimal notch which, in turn, may have rounded up the number of bushels in that particular truckload. That missing bushel may have been enough to boost the last digit of the average yield, changing it by a small yet critical fraction, thus affecting my feelings about the corn crop. And all because of that stupid squirrel!

It seems like we’re affixing numbers to everything nowadays. But what kind of calculus should we use to determine the value of a human being? Net worth? If that’s the case, then Mother Teresa was a total dud whereas Jeff Bezos is quite possibly the greatest person who has ever walked the face of the earth. I don’t know about you, but I’m not especially fond of that equation.

Perhaps we should value people based on what they are worth when reduced to their chemical components, a sum which works out to something like $5.86. In that instance, wouldn’t folks like me — who have gallstones and silver fillings — be worth a lot more than the average person?

I believe that we need fewer numbers in our lives, not more. I personally don’t care how much money is in my checking account as long as it falls under the category of “enough.”

Wouldn’t it be much more pleasant to visit the doctor if, after weighing you, he didn’t announce your tonnage in a voice that’s loud enough to be heard by the entire waiting room? Wouldn’t it be better if he simply whispered something like, “Maybe you should think about taking the stairs more often.”?

I’m going to try to avoid numbers as much as I can from now on. Why? Quite simply because it has become clear to me that fewer numbers equal fewer worries.

So, don’t go asking me to determine the volume of a cone unless it involves ice cream. And the only pi I’m willing to deal with is the kind that involves banana cream.

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