Back in January 2004, McGraw-Hill published a how-to math book titled “everyday math DeMYSTiFieD: A SELF-TEACHING GUIDE,” written by Stan Gibilisco. Because of my academic/research background in math and physics, I was a pre-publication reviewer.
At that time, I had no problems with the book’s content or its author. This is still true. Stan Gibilisco’s credentials for writing such a book are so far above reproach that it isn’t worth listing them. However, I had a MAJOR problem with the book’s title. In MY opinion, it’s misleading.
I’m writing about it again because today (May 14, 2011 at 10:45 AM) a young (I’m guessing her age at about sixteen or seventeen), newly hired waitress—I was Amber’s VERY first customer—mistakenly overcharged me for my order.
I calculated my bill to be $4.49 ($2.99 for the sandwich, $1.25 for the drink, and $0.25 for the sales tax at 6%). However, Amber’s total disagreed with mine. Her check total was $6.78. While the food and service at this place is great, it’s not GREAT enough to charge this much for a grilled cheese sandwich and a small Coke.
When I asked Amber how $4.24 worth of food and drink translates into a total bill of $6.78, she quickly blamed it all on Pennsylvania’s general sales tax. She then used her handy electronic calculator and recalculated the check total as I watched.
She entered 2.99 + 1.25 = for a subtotal of 4.24. She then multiplied this by 0.60 and added the result (2.54) to 4.24 for a grand total of 6.78. Bonnie, the other waitress as well as the luncheonette’s owner/operator, had come over to observe and immediately corrected Amber’s arithmetic.
It all ended well and on a friendly note. Bonnie apologized and blamed it on not having a cash register that automatically calculates a sales tax. Amber also apologized, not to mention the fact that she was very embarrassed.
I felt bad for Amber, but I silently disagreed with Bonnie on the crux of the problem.
A lack of programming sophistication on the part of a cash register had nothing to do with the fact that a high school junior—or possibly a senior—didn’t know that the decimal equivalent of 6% is 0.06, not 0.60. This is 5th-grade arithmetic.
I bring the book title into this simply because Amber, in apologizing for the overcharge, told me that she was never very good at math and that she should probably read the book (the above title) that her mother had recently bought her in hopes that it would help.
But, it won’t help; and, herein is where the term relativity enters the picture. “Everyday” math in Amber’s world is not the same as it is in Sam Gibilisco’s world. He can “demystify” the math in HIS world all he wants, but it’s not going to help people (men and women, young and old) like Amber.
Amber KNOWS how to use a calculator. She’s even adept at adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. Beyond these basics, her “math” eyesight is a bit fuzzy. And, when it comes to percentages and fractions, she seems totally blind.
Be honest; if you saw a book with the words, “everyday math” and “demystified” jumping from its cover, what would you think it’d be about? Yep, ME TOO!
I’d say to myself; “Self, here is a book about going to the grocery store, balancing the checkbook, figuring that tip at the restaurant, determining how much you really save with that sale, along with a whole host of everyday consumer math problems.”
In other words, this had to be—I’d have thought—something practical for average math phobes… people whose palms break out in a profuse sweat whenever circumstances confront them with the necessity of figuring out their portion of the meal-check and how much is 15% of THAT.
But, this book was never about such simple stuff. Oh, it’s about simple stuff as long as the thought of “algebra” doesn’t reduce you to a catatonic state. ”Simple,” “demystify,” “easy,” along with myriad other terms, are relative terms, not absolute.
When I originally reviewed this book, I randomly opened it to a page. It happened to be page 122. “Convert the following quadratic equations into factored form with real-number coefficients” leap from the top of the page. I’ve listed the equations below. I’m not making this up.
x2 – 2x – 15 = 0
x2 + 4 = 0
The book is comprehensive but simple to understand. It TRULY demystifies a litany of math concepts. The book defangs such cryptic, “everyday” math topics such as sets, set intersection, set union, subsets, proper subsets, disjoint sets, and coincident sets.
It also removes the cone of secrecy around decimal, binary, octal, and hexadecimal number systems, quadratic and simultaneous equations, inferential and descriptive statistics, statistical correlation, standard errors of estimate, and point estimates versus range estimates.
My God, it even explains that a second of time is NOT 1/60th of a minute; it’s actually 1/86,400th of a mean solar day. Or, even more specific, a second is “the time taken for a certain isotope of elemental Cesium to oscillate through 9,192,631,770 (9.192631770 x 109) complete cycles!
You get the point; it’s a good book unless some readers count themselves among the mentally missing from arithmetic classes starting with 3rd grade through 8th grade.
It certainly demystifies a lot of stuff. But, none of it is “everyday” math for close to 70% of the world’s population. This stuff almost NEVER comes up in conversations at the nation’s malls or parties.
Nor do we hear much about number systems or algebra when we order food at restaurants or take our automobiles in for repair, or compare the prices of various products and services. In fact, Jonas Salk almost flunked out of college because of calculus. What a dummy, huh?
Folks, math is important. I don’t mean to imply that it isn’t. If you are young and intend to build bridges, program microcomputers, design buildings, send people and space ships into the unknown, and develop medical cures for humanity’s ills, Stan’s book really helps. Buy it; it will clear up a lot of confusion.
But, it’s not going to be much help to the math phobes of this country: male and female, young and old. And, while it may be fun knowing the joys of rational number density, it’s far more important to be able to evaluate, quickly and mentally, that a quarter pound of jelly beans at $4.89, equals over $26 a pound!
And, perhaps even more important is that most of the world’s population has no need to worry over what Cesium IS, let alone wondering why it oscillates, unless, of course, it involves sex.
Joe Walther is a freelance writer and publisher of The True Facts. You may comment on his column by clicking here.