Numbers, Bloody Numbers
It’s impossible to escape from the influence of digits, no matter how hard you try, says GRAHAM SIMS.
Quite what that number is, I don’t care!
Nevertheless a statistician (poor fellow) has assured me that it will probably offend 82.7% of people, but, as we Germans say “Das ist mir ganz gleich!” (“That’s all the same to me!”)
You see, I’m sick to death of numbers! In fact, Mathematics never did turn me on. To this day, long division, short division, square roots, sines, tangents, quadratic equations (whether “simultaneous” or differentiated) do absolutely nothing for me! They remain an arcane and irrelevant mystery.
The “problems” invented by our teachers, (or borrowed from those mindless maths text-books), may have fascinated mathematics teachers and even some students, but they bored the living daylights out of me.
“A farmer needs to transport a wolf, a duck and a bag of wheat in a small row boat to an island. The boat will hold only the farmer and two items. Given that the wolf would eat the duck, if given the chance, and, similarly, the duck would eat the wheat, how could he safely transport all three items, and how many trips would he need to make?”
Now, folks, such a convoluted conundrum may well have set the computational cogs a-whirring in some sad souls … but I’m not one of them.
If I thought about it at all, I’d be wondering: why on earth would a farmer have a wolf? Why would he want to transport this combination to “an island”? What was on the island? Why did he have such a piddling little boat?
To my no doubt warped mind, it would have been poetic justice if the duck ate the wheat, the wolf ate the (fattened) duck and bit the farmer, the farmer shot the wolf, the recoil knocked the farmer right out of the stupid little boat and nobody lived happily ever after!
I’ve managed to live 69 (now there’s a number) love-filled, enjoyable and productive years without ever, to my knowledge, using any of the esoteric, convoluted mathematics inflicted on us beyond 6th class in primary school.
Now, although I spent my 40 years in education involved with languages, no doubt trying to get as far away as possible from the dreaded numbers game, I couldn’t escape it.
When I began teaching, us teachers had to teach 28 x 40 minute periods per week, as if this formula had within it some magical, legitimising force. They could be, and often were, 28 x 40 minute periods of utter boredom and/or irrelevance and/or incompetence but the quantity, rather than the quality, was enshrined and calculable.
When “old hands” advised me I’d better start seeking promotion “if I wanted to get anywhere”, I discovered this was also a numbers game. There were, in those days “promotion lists” (Lists 1, 2, 3 & 4). First of all, you had to be “inspected”, just to get on each list. Yes, there were separate inspections for each list, and, along with hundreds of competing colleagues, you had to advance up each list, in strict sequence, if you ever wished to become, a Subject Head, a Deputy Principal and, eventually, a Principal.
As Brian James portrays so incisively in Australia’s definitive novel about teaching, The Advancement of Spencer Button, teachers actually kept tabs on each one of their competitors and duly marked them off as they gained promotion, resigned, retired or died. So, although I was perfectly happy teaching languages, I dutifully climbed these lists until I was seconded to Head Office, and climbed another competitive ladder, eventually becoming an Inspector and Director of Schools.
My intention, when “I did my sums” and “the numbers made sense” was to retire gracefully. Instead, four heart attacks at the end of 1998 nearly meant that “my number was up”, so I retired not quite so gracefully.
In the first few years of my supposed retirement, I served as Principal/Consultant to two Islamic schools and The Italian Bilingual School, until the Tax Man did his numbers and I discovered I was paying as much tax as when I was working full-time, so I retired again. At long last (I naively thought) I can live my life unencumbered by numbers, but, no such luck!
I’m still stuck in a numbers game. I play tennis three times a week, I go cycling once a week, my dentist tells me how many teeth I have left…. At least I still have all my gums!
The mobile phone I vowed I’d never have is now virtually a permanent appendage, with all its blasted numbers, and then, of course, there are my credit cards, driving licence, motor registrations, Medicare card, Flybuys card etc etc, all with their own gibberish numbers.
I’ve been a Justice of the Peace for 45 years, but even this now involves quoting a magic number!
And now, a dear friend and cycling companion has fitted a cyclometer to his bike so that we can know precisely how far we ride each week. As if I care!
This same friend recently tried to talk me out of catching an express train to the city, because, although it left first, stopped at fewer stations and had more comfortable seats, he’d calculated that another train should reach the city “nearly 3 minutes” earlier. (Oh, yes; we had plenty of time!)
Since my “heart events” in 1998 (my cardiologist never uses the term “heart attack”), I have to have regular blood tests, stress tests, check-ups etc. As a special reward, I get printouts with cryptic numbers and graphs all over them. I think my doctors believe that deciphering them is supposed to make me feel better. As far as I’m concerned, if I’m alive, I feel better!
Many years ago, while studying Linguistics, I read about the Hopi Indians of North America, who had no numerical concept of time and divided their world into that which is manifest and that which is not manifest. Similarly, there have been cultures perfectly contented with a functionally simple number system. For example, the language of the Andaman Islands used one, two and “many”. Some Australian Aboriginal languages counted only as far as three, while the Mundurucu Indians of Brazil counted only to five. Their maths lessons I might have understood! By contrast, we seem to feel the need to count and measure things, especially abstract things, in millions, billions, trillions and gazillions.
We have whole numbers, ordinal numbers, cardinal numbers, fractional numbers, prime numbers, integers…
We even use “number” when we don’t mean “number”, for example, “She’s a hot little number”; “Your number’s up”; “Count on me” (What are you? An abacus?)
OK! I’m sure that by now, I’ve offended everyone with a mathematical bent, and especially all those saintly souls called “pure mathematicians”, who believe mathematics is “beautiful”. They rabbit on about mathematics being “the universal language”. (“R U 1, 2, 3? I’m 4, 5, 6!”)
How come, then, that the United Nations, The World Bank, The Olympics and, for all I know, the Intergalactic Wickerbottom Chair Repairers’ Association, seem to prefer good, old-fashioned English?
Perhaps it’s just a sine of the times!