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Effortlessly Average

Sort of half-heartedly leading the charge into mediocrity since, oh, let's say around 1987 or so.

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Location: Roaming (additional charges may apply), Argentina

Proof that with internet access and a powerful laxative, even insipid people will blog; the place where your excellence and my mediocrity collide; where my Karma whips ass on your dogma.

Friday, October 28, 2005

F-*-*-K Isn't The Only Four-Letter Word In Our House

Like many parents my wife and I fight a regular battle with regard to our kids' education. With subjects like science we find it easy to maintain their attention because, hey, who wouldn't be captivated by making snot out of common household items? Reading, geography, even history are areas in which we can maintain a modicum of interest from our kids given the large number of interesting, hands-on ways to gain their attention.

But there is only one subject with which I struggle to get our kids to care about at all. We all know what it is, say it with me now: MATH. Yes, those four foul little letters that kids use any number of other four-letter words to describe: C-R-A-P; D-U-M-B; H-A-T-E; U-S-E-L-E-S-S; or O-H-C-R-A-P-N-O-T-M-A-T-H-A-G-A-I-N. Of course that last one is, like, 10 letters or something, but you get my meaning. To them, math is responsible for all sorts of unpleasant side effects, including, but not limited to, hot sweats, dry heaves, clammy palms, cold sweats, explosive flatulence, projectile vomiting, ulcers, blurred vision, cavities, and hives. This, to them, means math should be avoided at all costs. I guess they've made mathematical ignorance a quality of life issue. From my perspective it merely causes much whining and carrying on, which in turn causes my ears to seal themselves shut and my arm to reach for the nearest sharp object to shove into my temple. Most parents get around this problem by leaving it to the public school system (or private school system if you're of the hoity toity crowd), but as our kids are homeschooled, it falls to us to provide the meat and potatoes of their education; and I'm not just talking school lunches either.

Being the progressive parents we are - by "progressive" I mean somewhat weird, since we've been trying to talk our son into a blue Mohawk for years now - I try to make math a part of their daily lives. And I'm not against a little bribery either. I have a standing offer to them that if we pay cash for something and they can calculate the change before it's handed to me, they get to keep it. The way I see it, their thirst for knowledge won't really kick in until they're around 25, give or take, so until then I'll use whatever means possible to ensure they can perform basic math and don't speak in monosylabic words.

Part of this effort means showing them that real-life education happens all around them every day, including math.

Some time ago our son came into the house.

"Hey Dad, do we have any string and a tape measure?"

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure we do. Why?"

"I was planning to make this rocket" he said as he held out his open science book, "but I can't find the tape measure."

The design is really simple. You use two balloons, a Dixie cup, and a bit of tape. You fill the balloons and build the device such that balloon two expels its air only after Stage I (the first balloon) has deflated, causing the Dixie cup to fall away. The whole thing is taped to a drinking straw through which is a string that has its ends tied several yards apart. He had everything he needed but the string.

As far as the tape measure goes, I used to have two of them, but just like most of my other tools, they seemed to sprout legs and go Walkabout. All I can hope for is that when they are through with their journey of discovery they'll return to their home in my toolbox, likely with many exciting sotries to tell.

"Yeah, I think there's some string in the garage. How much do you need?"

"I don't know, what do you think?"

My Math Radar went off. Yeah, sure, I know I could have just taken the spool of string out to the yard, tied one end off and unwound the spool to the other end, but as I said, I seek opportunities to work math into the situation. "This sounds like a job for quadratic equations, geometric theorems, and spatial calculus! Or at least a tape measure and paper/pencil combination, but that sounds less dramatic, don't you think? I mean, special situations absolutely require dramatic action! Where would Batman be if he applied every day solutions to the problems he faces? It would sound stupid if the Joker was trying to take over city hall and all the Dark Knight could muster is organizing a protest. "Quick Robin, to the Bat Fax!" No, no, no, that just sounds stup-"

"Dad? Hello, Dad! What are you thinking?"

"What? Oh. Nothing, I just rememered I need to send a fax. Anyway, let's go see if we can figure it out."

We went outside and he showed me where he'd planned to string his guidewire, which was basically between two trees that I happen to know are at a right angle to- and nearly equidistant from- the shed in the corner of the yard.

Standing near one tree, he pointed toward the other. "I want to string it between these two trees here."

"Well, son," I said with a knowing down-the-nose- glance, "I have no idea where my tape measures went [I also seek opportunities to editorialize my frustration over my wayward tools], but I'll bet we can think up a really cool way to figure this out. It'll be very Mission Impossible."

His interest perked. "Yeah? How's that?" He's a very Mission Impossible kind of kid. Not that he knows the show from Barney, but he really like the theme song, so he equates every exciting situation with it. That or the theme from the Matrix, but that requires wearing my sunglasses too.

I pointed to the shed. "Did you notice that that shed over there is about the same distance from both trees?"

"Yeah."

"Well I happen to know that each of these trees is 25 feet from that shed."

"So. I want to string it between the trees, not the trees and the shed."

"Yes, I know. Tell me, ever hear of a guy named Pythagoras of Samos?"

"No, but it sounds like a restaurant of some kind."

"He was a guy who lived a very long time ago. in the Middle East and southeastern Europe. It's believed that he was one of those people who could literally see numbers in everything. He came up with a brilliant theory about the harmonics of strings of proportionate lengths that makes most of our modern stringed instruments possible. He also is credited with inventing a thing called Pythagoras' Theorem."

"So we're going to use my guitar to measure the string? Ha!"

"Very funny. Shut up. Anyway, he figured out that if you have a triangle like we do here" I pointed to the far tree with one hand and the shed with the other "and you know the length of the two short sides, you can figure out the length of the long side."

"How's that?" He had the look of someone who thought they might be the butt of a joke, but hadn't figure it out yet.

Man, this is going perfectly. This education stuff is a breeze! "Well, I know that it's 25 feet, roughly, from each of these trees to the shed. According to the Pythagorean Theorem, if I take 25-squared - that's 25 times itself - plus 25-squared and find the square root - which is sort of like the number divided by itself - of the resulting number, it'll tell me the- hey, where are you going?

My son stopped walking nd turned around. "This is starting to sound like math."

"Yeah, math is everywhere. So?"

"So, suddenly I don't care as much about the rocket."

Maybe I should bribe him next time.

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