Counting Toes

Famous Footwear of the KeysSuppose you have seven shoes lined up in front of your rock. Anne gives you four of my shoes because she is tired of tripping over them. How far south is your rock?

World Math Day is tomorrow. Cool.

The Guinness record holding online international mathematics competition had 1,204,766 participants in 56,082 schools in 235 countries last year. The original World Math Day was held on the March 14 (Pi Day) but has moved to the first Wednesday in March except it is on Tuesday this year. No wonder math is so confusing.

Students from across the world have 48 hours to compete in 20 games in each of five levels. (Quick! How many games is that?) Students have only 60 seconds to complete each game. (Quick! How many minutes do half the games take?)

Those 1.2 million students correctly answered 479,732,613 questions in the 2010 challenge. That broke the record of 452,682,682 correct answers that 1.9 million students had posted in 2009.

I’m thinking you need to know math just to keep track of the answers. And the contestants. In fact, I’m thinking you need a computer. After all, World Math Day would not be possible without computers and the Internet to pair off more than a million competitors and track their results in real time.

The abacus, built by Egyptian mathematicians in 2000 BC, was in widespread use centuries before we even started writing numbers down, let alone before we started formally counting by tens. Merchants, traders and clerks in Africa, Asia, and around the world still use it.

Most people think the Abacus was the first arithmetic calculator. That would be wrong. The first arithmetic calculator was a pile of rocks.

Og have 11 rocks. Og give four rocks to Nug. Og have seven rocks left.

And so we learned very early to make change.

Time passed. Math needs multiplied. Edmund Gunter invented the slide rule around 1620 so engineers could figure out how much a church roof rafter would bend. The slide rule can be faster at multiplication and division, and often is faster for roots, logarithms and trigonometry than a calculator, but it doesn’t add or subtract very easily which makes it not nearly as useful as an abacus as tax time draws near. I was in the last class at Stevens Institute required to buy a slide rule.

Blaise Pascal invented the first mechanical calculator about 20 years after Gunter made his slipstick but IBM waited until 1954 to demonstrate the first all-transistor model. Their first commercial unit, the IBM 608, cost about $80,000.

Scott Flansburg serves as the Ambassador for World Maths Day and is known as “the human calculator” because he can run the numbers faster than an electronic calculator can. Mr. Flansburg visited All Angels Academy students in Miami Springs a couple of weeks ago. He was there to energize students as they prepare for the contest. This is the second year students from the school will participate in this event.

That’s encouraging.

Kids need to be better at math than I am. After all, there are more numbers now.

I have an undergrad degree in math and science as well as one in mechanical engineering but in real life I combine pursuits like this — writing and photography — with consulting to other small businesses. I don’t engineer stuff every day but I do use math. Every day. I use it to calculate my change at Wally World faster than the cash register. I use it to determine how many network cables I need to set up a client’s new computer system. And the programmers I hire used it to make sure these words I type appear on my screen and, shortly, on yours. Every kid today will use more math in his or her lifetime than you or I have.

For the record, I still have my slide rule. I also have a solar powered Casio full scientific calculator, a lot smaller than their first all-electric “compact” calculator of 1957. My handheld cost $10.

Both my slide rule and my solar calculator require light to work. Mr. Flansburg can work in the dark.

Tomorrow is also Town Meeting Day in most of Vermont. Anne who is a Justice of the Peace (and election official) will be counting shoes (and noses) again. I hope she won’t be counting in the dark.

11 thoughts on “Counting Toes

  1. I have learned that most people count best in their *first tongue*, or the language in their home where they grew up.

    This morning I went to the garden store to buy some peppper and tomato plants. The young Mexican guy at the register was named Arturo. He spoke English well and with a practiced Anglo accent. When I got to him, he said in perfectly enunciated English that my purchase was “three dollars and eighty-seven cents.”

    Because I had a pocket full of loose coins, I gave him two, one-dollar bills and a handful of change. He started raking it off the counter into his open hand — counting as he did — and immediately reverted to his more familiar *Cinco, Quatro, Uno* routine.

    I don’t count aloud well in Spanish — or any language — so I just followed the path of each coin as it disappeared into his palm. We ended with the same tally, and I told him thanks and left.

    Habeeb’s wife at the liquor store does the same thing to me when I pay her with a mix of coins and greenbacks. And so does Mr Charlie Lee at the do nut shop — except that he also uses faintly moving digits on his left hand to keep count.

    I bet Gunter won’t be recruiting in either of those hotbeds of mathmatical genius.

    — George

  2. Here’s a quiz to test your math skills.

    You are a participant in a race. You overtake the second person. What position are you in?

    Answer: if you answered that you are first, then you are absolutely wrong! If you overtake the second person and you take his place, you are in second place!
    Try to do better next time.

    Now answer the second question,
    But don’t take as much time as
    You took for the first question, OK?

    If you overtake the last person, then you are….?
    (scroll down)

    Answer: if you answered that you are second to last, then you are…..
    Wrong again. Tell me sunshine, how can you overtake the last person??
    You’re not very good at this, are you?

    Very tricky arithmetic! Note:
    Do not use paper and pencil or a calculator.
    Try it.

    Take 1000 and add 40 to it. Now add another 1000 now add 30.
    Add another 1000. Now add 20 . now add another 1000.
    Now add 10. What is the total?

    Scroll down for the correct answer…..

    Did you get 5000?

    The correct answer is actually 4100…
    If you don’t believe it, check it with a calculator!
    Today is definitely not your day, is it?
    Maybe you’ll get the last question right… Maybe…

    Mary’s father has five daughters:
    1 nana, 2. Nene, 3. Nini, 4. Nono, and ???
    What is the name of the fifth daughter?

    Did you answer nunu? No! Of course it isn’t.
    Her name is Mary! Read the question again!

    I.e., a final chance to
    Redeem yourself:

    A mute person goes into a shop and wants to buy a toothbrush. By imitating the action of brushing his teeth he successfully expresses himself to the shopkeeper and the purchase is done.

    Next, a blind man comes into the shop who wants to buy a pair of sunglasses; how does he indicate what he wants?

    It’s really very simple. He opens his mouth and asks for it….

    Does your employer actually pay you to think?
    If so do not let them see your answers for this test!

    Pass this on to frustrate the smart people in your life!
    Have a nice day, one and all.

  3. Over on Facebook, Dangerous Bill reminded me that he had his father’s slide rule.

    Good memory. When my dad was still a sergeant in WWII, the army came looking for someone who could operate a slide rule. He thought about the fact the “truck drivers” generally ended up driving wheelbarrows and could find no downside to fessing up to understanding a slipstick. He took that fateful step forward, got a ticket to OCS and a billet in the Quartermaster corps.

    I don’t think he brought his home from Europe but I still have my grandfather’s.

  4. My dad learned in high school that if you were smart, you got extra work. So when the army gave him an intelligence test, he took care to answer some of the questions wrong. He still ended up in Army Intelligence, with a ticket to language school in Monterrey

  5. To George: I do the same thing. I have lived in Germany for 20 years, yet I cannot tell a clerk my postal code without saying it under my breath first in English and then out loud in German.

  6. @Liza, do you think and dream in German?

    I am reasonably fluent in English and have a passing acquaintance with some of the Romance languages (elsewhere in this series I revealed the travails my teachers had trying to force French, Latin, and Spanish between my ears). I don’t understand much when people speak those languages to me but I can read a little. Mostly I read by translating the cognates on the fly.

    OTOH, I can count with aplomb in English, French, and Spanish, no translation required.

    Odd, that.

  7. Herr Blogmeister wrat: “Mostly I read by translating the cognates on the fly.”

    I hate it when I get cognates on my fly.

    — George

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