Monday, July 16, 2012

Don’t throw away the arithmetic yet

After I wrote a guest post on White Group Maths, I asked Frederick if he would like to reciprocate as I like his simple yet engaging style of writing. Happily, he agreed so here's his post. Slightly irreverent, yet relevant. For all the non maths enthusiasts, hopefully this will pique your interest in the subject!


“A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one”- Narrator (Fight Club, 1999)

Seriously? Using algebra on the job? Not unless one is deeply involved with actuarial work. Things would get messier if the person is an aerospace engineer we are talking about, since he has to formulate specific mathematical models to simulate efficiency of avionics systems. Or a rocket scientist who has to……… ok I shall stop, because this is the point when the average Joe would scream total irrelevance. The comforting truth is, for majority of us peace-loving, ordinary folks, the amount of mathematics which actually wriggle into our livelihoods to taunt and torment is far much lesser. In fact, almost all the knowledge acquired in school (horrors of horrors such as calculus, complex numbers, vectors et cetera) would be relegated to the junk folder of our memory banks from the very instant we graduate and step into the working world, never to be revisited again in our future endeavours.

That said, there are a few basic math skills definitely worth preserving throughout adulthood, chief amongst them is arithmetic (which includes mental calculation to a certain extent). What then, as one may question, is the value of being able to count competently and efficiently? Herein I shall share five benefits you would be rewarded with in daily living:

1. Producing fairly accurate ascertainment of costs on the spot

Say there is a 50 dollar note resting snugly within your wallet, and you have decided to give yourself a nice treat. This restaurant with a particularly unique ambience and good food is offering a classy buffet spread at $44.90, exclusive of the additional 10% service charge and 7% GST. Will you end up washing the dishes for a whole day in their kitchen because you didn’t have sufficient funds to make payment? Rounding up the cost to $45, and doing a quick mental check that the 10% service charge is equivalent to $4.50 (which therefore gives a sub-total of approximately 50 bucks without factoring in the other 7% surcharge), you would have concluded it is wise to give this place a miss for the moment.

2. Prudent budgeting

This absolutely goes hand in hand with prudent spending. At some point in our lives, the temptation to shell out cash to get that big-ticket item is just excruciatingly overwhelming. Should you succumb to the devil or postpone the purchase? Or perhaps clench your teeth and walk away forever? A little diligent math done beforehand coupled with a rational, disciplined mind-set would help prevent penalisation in the form of a deeper shade of red on your personal balance sheet. And all it takes is a typically straightforward process of adding and subtracting of numbers, with some interest rates thrown in as multiplication factors if you are looking at a bank loan for financing purposes. It is indeed as easy as it sounds.

3. Reconciling facts with statistics

Statistics can be augmented to present a fictional truth, however blunt, raw facts never lie. Think: an ailing man is considering undergoing a major surgical procedure, and an unscrupulous hospital cites success rates of 75 percent. An independent study by a non-profit medical foundation demonstrates that in a recent batch of 100 patients who were wheeled into operating theatres worldwide, 60 came out with white sheets draped over them. If his tingling mathematical sense kicked in to warn him of this existing discrepancy, he would think twice (probably thrice) before putting his signature on the consent form. That moment of pause could have well given him greater clarity in planning his next course of action. Moral of the story: be discerning by doing your own math homework, as this saves you the potential agony of being deceived by conniving, slippery salesmen. And it might save your life too.

4. Impressing that girl

Neil Strauss completely forgot about penning this down in his book “The Game”, so here is the tip: you can in fact impress the hot girl of your dreams with your superior mental calculation skills. Say she is totalling up the impending bill for her cart of groceries in one corner of the supermarket using her fingers, and you swoop in to give her the correct grand figure. Chances are she can’t take her eyes off you, at least for a while. Tried and tested by yours sincerely, and works like a charm.

5. Keeping Dementia at bay

While a cure currently still eludes scientists and doctors, studies have shown that maintaining cognitive fitness goes some way in delaying the progression of symptoms, thereby enhancing the overall quality of life. Hence, start entertaining yourself with KENKEN puzzles, and reduce the odds of being ravaged by old-age Alzheimer’s.

Frederick Koh is a teacher residing in Singapore who specialises in teaching the A level maths curriculum. He has accumulated more than a decade of tutoring experience and loves to share his passion for mathematics on his personal site

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