Friday, August 3, 2012

It All Adds Up

Monday, July 30, 2012
Andrew Hacker’s essay in the Sunday Times,, contains so many errors of fact and logic that I have concluded that Professor Hacker is just having fun and doesn’t believe a word of it. After all, the Hacker I studied with decades ago, and have read frequently since, usually supported his provocative opinions with careful reasoning and accurate data. Yesterday, he casually dismissed the value of teaching algebra to high school and college students, mathematics majors aside, because it is hard and not useful. While he once told his graduate students that he wrote “How We Elect A President,” for Boy’s Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts of America, in order to buy a color television set in the early 1960s, I cannot suggest what he sought with this effort.

It turns out that I am well-qualified to comment on Professor Hacker’s comments because he was instrumental in deflecting me from an academic career, which resulted for a couple of years thereafter in my teaching algebra. The latter experience confirmed for me that algebra is hard for many students. Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle for some students was the first step in symbolic logic, let X =. I’m still not sure, after all these decades, whether the inability of some students to attach a symbol to the unknown resulted from a lack of imagination, concentration or empathy. In fact, my biggest problem as an algebra teacher was the ease with which I took to algebra myself as a student. “Let X = the train leaving from Chicago.” “Sure.” “Let X = the apples in the shopping cart.” “OK.” “Let X = the boys waiting on line for the 6 o’clock show.” “Gotcha.” It was very hard for me to convey to others what to me was quite obvious. So, I grant that algebra can be hard.

Not useful, dead wrong. The first steps in my business career, after my teaching episode, were in commercial computer programming which could not exist without algebra. Then, when I went into managing things instead of doing things, estimates, schedules, budgets all rested on manipulating unknowns, organizing them into constructs that might insulate us, to some degree, from the randomness of the Universe. Even when quantification is not at issue, we often seek an X factor to explain behavior.

Professor Hacker claims that “[m]aking mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent.” I think quite the opposite. An ability to put one’s figurative arms around the unknown, or at least be willing to try, may be the common thread of talent in almost any area of human endeavor.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012
One mystery is solved. I ate at Ann’s BBQ, on the second floor at 1 East Broadway, the site with the most identities in Chinatown. Today, the door on the second floor was wide open and the mild temperatures did not require airconditioned relief. Except for the light oak floor, all the furniture, 6 rectangular tables and one round table, and paneling are dark wood. One long wall is covered with mirrors set in arched wood frames. The only other wall decorations were posters for drinks and desserts. The four employees behind a bar/counter at the rear of the restaurant had very little to do; only two young Chinese men sat at the bar, but they were schmoozing not eating.

The menu lists meats, vegetables, and seafood in modestly-priced groups, that were probably grilled and served on skewers. I ordered from the casual snacks section, fried chicken ($2.50) and shrimp w. salt & pepper ($3.50). The chicken were deep-fried, breaded discs (8) with ketchup on the side, but the shrimp were real, heads-on, cooked in the shell (6). Additionally, I ordered Taiwanese shaved ice, which I have not seen anywhere else locally after its successful introduction last summer (July 28, 2011). Today’s ice was more coarsely chopped than shaved and served in a large bowl with a choice of three toppings; I picked coconut, pineapple and watermelon ($3.75). The fruit was both fresh and candied. The dish was colorful, but not very interesting, like so much modern entertainment.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Thanks to my brother for referring me to this article on the backlash to Hava Nagila, that musical staple of Jewish festivities.

Thursday, August 2, 2012
I feel so much safer now that Mitt Romney has returned to the United States. We all know that Mitt and his hearty five sons have always put themselves forward in the difficult battles of protecting freedom and preserving the American Way. After all, it was Mitt’s bravery in downtown France during la guerre du Viêt Nam that inspired his sons to keep physically fit by playing tennis and skiing throughout the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, our country is much more secure with Mitt here where what he says is ignored by domestic friend and foe alike, rather than overseas where the locals might pay heed to the words of the possible next president of the United States. Our global leadership role is best served by limiting Mitt to forays in the forests of Michigan, you know the place with the special trees.

Chinatown seems to be especially taken with the Olympics. The flat-panel television sets that seem omnipresent in local restaurants have abandoned for the time being strange music videos and switched to coverage of various athletic events. This may result from an interest in synchronized swimming previously unmet by the normal broadcast schedule, or possibly the strong showing that China has made so far in the medal count, according to the New York Times sport section, the only reporting you can trust. In any case, as I am devoted to spending no more time watching the Olympics than I do watching the Academy Awards or the Miss America Pageant, I face a challenge at lunchtime thse days. Note that, at least, the Academy Awards and Miss America don't have a Munich in their closet. I can’t stay away from a joint merely because it is showing the Olympics, because this would severely limit my options. Instead, I aim for a seat immediately beneath the screen with my back towards it. With the sound usually off, which is not the case with the strange music videos, I can turn to my food and crossword puzzle without interference from the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.


  1. I am with you on this one. Whatever Professor Hacker's motivation -- making money or making a joke -- it is a rather sad perspective. I would suggest that finding X -- the search for the unknown -- is the essential element in all of our accomplishments. After all, another word for finding X is "curiosity." I would also add my own belief that we should be demanding more from our students, not less.

  2. Algebra was the second most valuable lesson I learned in school after not teasing boys stronger and faster than me!