Friday, 2 March 2012

1, 2, 3, 4!

I read a report on the BBC website that left me aghast earlier. No, it wasn't the report in toto, as I rendered much of what was worrying about it irrelevant by mindful egocentricity. For instance, on reading this -

A YouGov poll for the charity suggests that while four out of five people would be embarrassed to confess to poor literacy skills, just over half would feel the same about admitting to poor maths skills.

- I was not unduly alarmed, as I don't rate my maths skills terribly highly. I have a friend who's a maths teacher at a secondary school, and another with a doctorate in the subject, so I have a Socratic consciousness of my inadequacies in the field. I'm not even up-to-date: I believe I remember finding out that Fermat's Last Theorem had been proved a year or two after the event. On the other hand, I'm quite happy with my literacy. I am prone to loquacity, as a glance at my over-long last blog entry shows, but I have a very reasonable vocabulary and can manage enough allusions to old books that I don't sound entirely dense. In fact, I was reading Middlemarch earlier - "Stop namedropping, Pete!" - hah! Nothing of the sort. I'm reading it because school put me off classics of literature, and something Dorothea says in Ch. XXI thus struck me personally. 'It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not to be able to see that it is fine - something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.' She is speaking of art rather than literature, but the parallel is exact.

So I know a few words and I have read a few books, but I found certain aspects of Maths GCSE ridiculously difficult. We had a piece of coursework for which we had to craft a formula to work out how many smaller triangles fitted inside a larger one. Three or four guys in the class worked it out, then everyone copied off them, as I remember. Tut-tut! Never my sort of thing, that. So I and one other guy in the class failed to find this impossible formula. I turned in two sides of head-scratching, baffled failure, and was pretty shocked when everyone else was turning in seventeen or eighteen sides of working of the proof. It makes an impression, that sort of affair!

Anyway, I never felt much kinship with figures. My brother has always been the more mathematically-minded one, taking more closely after Dad. He was in the first set for Maths at school, and so took his GCSE a year early, then did an AS-level. He may even have sat an A-level in the sixth form. I forget. Anyway, I'm the English one and he's the Maths one. So in my own family I have long been accustomed not to rate my mathematical abilities highly, and among my circle of friends I am a very long way from being the best! So I tend to be a bit amazed when something comes along like the test that accompanied that report. Here's the test.


The label instructs you to use 40mls of bleach in five litres of water. How much should you use in half a litre of water?
A) 2ml
B) 2.5ml
C) 4ml
D) 20ml
Were you right? Click below to find out.

Bear in mind that this is not some sort of test for primary school children. This is a test to see whether someone reading the BBC's website can do maths. It's by far the most shocking thing I have read recently. I simply cannot imagine how anyone could have such a poor understanding of maths that they could not answer that. OK, two exceptions: if the respondent were mentally handicapped or if the respondent were ignorant of metric measurements. Bear in mind that the UK half-heartedly switched over to the metric system some decades ago. Problematically, when I was at school neither system was taught in its entirety, so a lot of my knowledge is pieced together from some very strange sources.

I still cannot recall the area of a hectare, and so have to look it up. The approximation of a mile as 1.6 kilometres I owe to a Star Wars Technical Manual. That there are 1,760 yards in a mile I owe to looking it up in one of Dad's books when I was a teenager. That an inch is 25.4mm is fixed in my mind because I was trying to work out why an artillery piece was designated as 76.2mm. That 568ml is equal to a pint I know from seeing it on milk bottles. When it comes to weights, my understanding is that 454g is equal to a pound, but there I rather run out of steam. I know that gold has two fewer ounces  in its pounds than the regular pound, and I know that thanks to a Scooby Doo annual!

I can only hope that they do cover both systems properly these days, but this article suggests the system is far worse! How a system could be worse than a child having to learn rates of conversion from sci-fi and cartoons rather than getting taught them properly in school, I really don't know. But in a nation where the concept of dividing by ten is regarded as a test of mathematical fortitude, I can only weep for the future! Still, if mathematical knowledge is so very atrocious, I should perhaps put my apparent treasury of knowledge to use. I can recall SOHCAHTOA, πr2  and Pythagoras' Theorem. The last I even have occasion to use once in a while when knocking up a bit of scenery. Indeed, some years ago a group of friends and I were going to make a shed, and ran up some nifty calculations - only to be disappointed as pre-fabricated sheds cost less than the raw materials we wanted. Tsk! I even recall using it back when I used to 'game and one had to guess how far Basilisks could fire. We played some huge games back then, and the individual boards were 2' by 4', so it was a simple enough matter to translate that into inches, determine the difference on the x and y axes separating the gun and the target, then use Pythagoras' Theorem to drop a shell 5' 7" away and obliterate a Rhino or whatever! Amusing stuff, that! There you go, kids: a real world application of maths that you can't do any more, the rules having changed! :-D


  1. Replies
    1. Heh! :-D I really was freaked out by that business. I still don't get how that can be a question one'd ask of any adult. It reminds me of how housemates would just stare at me when I'd allude to Pliny or Tacitus back in uni, but Latin authors are not nearly so fundamental as basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. I may have to hide in a hole until society's competence improves - that or start stealing from people at checkouts who fail to realise what numbers mean! ;-)

  2. I can see how this is true. I openly boast of my skills of with English language but math? Beyond what I use on a regular basis, I'm rusty as hell. That seems to be the issue with math: aside from arithmatic, how much does a person use on a regular basis? I, for the life of me, have never needed to use anything they thought in school after basic algebra.

    1. The thing is, this campaign doesn't seem to be about anything you'd need to engage your brain to do. I probably misled by mentioning circles' areas and Pythagoras, as the article says people can't use train timetables or calculate how much change they should get when buying things. People don't generally need to know about triangles, and I doubt I could tell you what a quadratic equation was without looking it up. But I think we'd both be able to work out how long we had until a train left, if it were scheduled to depart at 15:53, and the time we were inspecting the schedule was 14:45. It just requires one to know there are sixty minutes in an hour. Likewise, if my goods at the supermarket till add up to £3.76, and I pay with a five-pound note, working out what's due doesn't even begin to fire neurons. That's what the article says people can't do. That's why I'm shocked.

    2. If that's the case, I'm just as shocked.


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