Mathochism: How long can we maintain?

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

“‘How long can we maintain?’ I wondered. ‘How long before one of us starts raving and jabbering at this boy?'”

The above quote comes from Hunter S. Thompson, and it appears in the first few pages of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.” In the book, Thompson, aka Raoul Duke, and his lawyer are driving to Las Vegas to cover a sporting event. They have both taken a prodigious cocktail of legal and illegal drugs, and are loopy and paranoid as a result. Still, they decide to pick up a hitchhiker, which leads Duke to wonder how long they can act normal before the hitchhiker realizes how high — and crazy — they really are.

Now, I am not driving through the Mojave Desert high as a kite (nor do I plan to any time soon), but as I go into week five of my eight week math course, I’m having the same thoughts.

How long can I maintain?

How long can I maintain this facade that I may not suck at math? How long will it be before my brain betrays me? How long before a concept outstrips my abilities?

Will it be the first day of Algebra I, when I trade in the solid numbers for
the abstract letters? Will it be next year, when I take Plane Geometry, and once again take on those theorems that so perplexed me the two times I took it before?

Or will it be Thursday, when we take the chapter 4 test on decimals?
Or even tonight, when I get my fractions test back, and it turns out I JUST. DON’T. GET. IT?

My math confidence was shaken last week, and it had nothing to do with pre-algebra. I am also taking a computer class as a pre-requisite for a web design class. The future of newspapers is bleak, and I need technical skills (such as working with a blog) to continue being a journalist in this Brave New News World.

In last week’s computer class, we learned all about binary numbers. It seems simple enough — all binary numbers are composed of a series of zeroes and ones. However, when it came to converting a decimal number into a binary, and back again, I JUST. DIDN’T. GET. IT.

I’ve never been afraid of computers. I started using them right around the time I gave up on math, and languages like Basic and Logo and Pascal never seemed threatening. I never worried the computer would blow up or get the best of me.

I approached this class with the full confidence that it would be a breeze. And, other than the annoyance of having to deal with a PC platform (I’ve been an Apple woman from the very beginning) and ridiculous amounts of tech jargon I cannot see the point in memorizing, as long as I understand it, it’s been fine.

The teacher is a perfectly pleasant woman. However, when she explained how to convert decimals to binaries and back again, she lost me completely. Being a child of the digital revolution, I went online for an alternate explanation.

I STILL DON’T GET IT. Well, not entirely. I sort of understand how, say, the number 5 becomes 101. But I cannot tell you how 101 becomes 5.

I know there is a mathematical formula, but my mind isn’t grasping it.

And let’s face it, this very pleasant computer teacher does not have the same gift as the dapper professor for making the murky turn clear.

And, sadly, the dapper professor is not teaching Algebra next semester. What if the next teacher is like the pleasant computer teacher? Or, goddess forbid, my ninth grade algebra teacher, who refused to explain at all? I went up to her after class once, desperate for an answer to something (everything!) I didn’t get. She looked down her nose at me.

“What can I do?”

“Your job, dammit!” I didn’t scream.

“You can help me become a better math student!” I didn’t plead.

The last five weeks have thawed the corners of my icy math heart. The thing with ice, though, is that one hard blow makes it shatter.

So how can I maintain?

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.



  • As a woman who chose to major in math in college partly because of the “girls suck at math” stereotype, it’s been interesting to read these posts.

    About converting binary to decimal: look at the last digit and multiply it by 1. Then look at the second-to-last digit and multiply it by 2. Then look at the third-to-last digit and multiply it by 4. (Then the fourth-to-last by 8, and so on). Then add them all up. You have 101, so
    last digit (1) x 1 = 1
    next-to-last (0) x 2 = 0
    third-to-last (1) x 4 =4
    1+4 = 5
    Is that how they explained it in class?
    I think converting binary to decimal is easier to explain because it involves just addition and multiplication. Decimal to binary is a bit trickier, so if you can do that you can definitely do the reverse.

  • Wow, JessSnark — thanks!
    That actually makes sense to me. You’re not my awesome pre-algebra prof in disguise, are you?
    I must go now to convert some binary numbers. Thanks again!!

  • I’m really enjoying this.
    I’m glad JessSnark’s explanation helped you understand it.

  • I’m not a teacher. I’m enjoying this series though, because it’s so completely the opposite of my math experience it’s really eye-opening. I’m curious how they explained the conversion method to you if not in the same way I did.

  • We were shown how to convert a decimal to a binary by dividing it by two, and if there was a remainder, you put down 1, and if not, zero. I sort of got that, but I needed some practice before getting that down. It was the binary to decimal thing that was hard. She did set up a line of numbers — 1, 2, 4, 8, etc. but there was no simple “multiply the last number by one, the next by two, etc., then add” explanation. I would have gotten that!

  • glad I could help, then!

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