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Offbeat – 01 March 2013

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Give a kid a bag of sweets with instructions to hand them out. The division becomes remarkably precise. Tell a kid to slice up a chocolate cake, and that the largest slice will go to his or her arch-nemesis, and the exercise of geometry becomes amazingly accurate.

Forty seven divided by nine is five point two something and an apple and an apple is two apples but if you add a pear, then it’s two apples and a pear or the beginnings of a fruit salad.
A mom and a dad can make a variable number of kids. If you divide all the kids by the number of moms and dads together, you might get a fairly arbitrary number of kids like two point three. And the two point three kids is just a notional representation of a family unit. They don’t cut the kids to get to that tally.
There you have it. Maths is easy. Except for long division by hand. That’s a nightmare, unless I have a calculator in hand. Maybe I should go and practice it just in case whatever apocalypse is expected to happen this year destroys all the computers and calculators.
Now, for fifty points, here’s today’s big question. Why is maths frightening?
I used to be scared of maths. I thought it was hard, almost impossible. I knew at a very fundamental level that it would defeat me, and the reason was that big kids told younger kids who told one another, including myself. And because of this, I struggled with maths until I got to university, where I was too busy to struggle with it and I had to give up my fears. End of the story. Well, not quite.
Somewhere, way back before history was written down, some kid no doubt looked at a bunch of dead lizards or beetles, or whatever it was that the hunter gatherers had for dinner, and decided that it was hard to count them.
She, or most likely a he, passed this message on, and it echoed through the aeons until it reached the schoolyards of today. It was probably reinforced by the occasional psychotic maths teacher, and there are few teachers who can be as calculatingly vindictive as those, but on the whole, it is kids teaching kids that creates the problem.
Now here’s the proof that it is all a base lie. Give a kid a bag of sweets with instructions to hand them out. The division becomes remarkably precise. Tell a kid to slice up a chocolate cake, and that the largest slice will go to his or her arch-nemesis, and the exercise of geometry becomes amazingly accurate.
My guessing is that the cave kid, way back then, didn’t particularly want to eat what was in his hand. It had to happen, but someone has to take the fall. A notional cave kid is the safest way to go. It has a biblical feel to it: “The sins of the fathers…”
During that time when I lost my fear of the thing, I had to invert matrixes by hand, multiplying number by number, this row to that column. It was a peaceful exercise, almost a Zen thing. By the time I got to slotting the thing into the formula, all fear was gone. Then gradually, it would become a curve on a chart, not a thing of beauty in itself, but beautiful for its method.
It’s hard to tell that to kids. They have the truth of their buddies, brothers and sisters.
What would kids be, if not for the sharing of their fears? Outsiders, pariahs. Kids need validation and vindication. Other kids, who can’t give that comfort, have no meaning in the group. It’s the same with adults. Fears are adopted and shared, not because they hold any real validity, but because they are the tokens of belonging.
There, if you will, is a bent mathematical proof of one of the lessons of history.
What’s wrong with this picture? Could it be that belonging is not entirely a matter of sharing and pleasure?
I am paring myself back. I don’t really need a lot of the things that I have clung to. I need to get rid of cigarettes and coffee, replace them with air and water, but to get to the core of myself, I have to lose the fears I share for the sake of belonging, get rid of the mindless tyranny.
It’s not exactly the easiest of exercises. Sometimes fears are valid.
There should be more to it, perhaps some kind of seven-step self-help number, but I haven’t found it yet. I’m cutting this story here. I need to go work on my long division now.

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