Mathochism: Back to the math

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

In reading over my last few Mathochism entries, I have come to realize I’ve been focusing too much on petty irritations in the classroom, and not so much on the math.

This is probably because, as a journalist, I have always believed that people and their foibles were the most interesting part of the story. For instance, even when I’ve written an ode to cheesecake, the real story was about the woman who had sacrificed everything to setting up her own cheesecake business. Always bringing the subject back to people, moreover, is a surefire way to connect with other people. We all have our humanity in common, even if our interests differ.

But now I want to get back to the math.

I’ve bored everyone with my insecurities and my math phobia during my first class. And I’ve already mentioned how very different this second class feels. Mainly, the fear is gone, and the confidence that came from getting that first A has stuck with me.

It stuck with me enough that I got an A on my first Algebra test. Yay!

But that test was essentially a rehash of pre-algebra. The next test, a week from now, may prove to be my Waterloo, because it will be heavy on one subject: word problems.

Word problems. *Shudder*

Word problems are partly why I kinda sorta tanked the math part of the SAT. They also convinced the folks who give the GRE that I have zero logic.

Okay, I promised not to get all insecure again! But I also know I’m not the only one who fears and dreads word problems. Generations before me, and after me, have quailed at the idea of solving word problems, especially when they involve trains arriving in Pittsburgh while other trains pass each other in Topeka, carrying six red dogs and two brown donkeys. Now, how many eggs does that give you?

I sometimes wonder what people who come up with word problems look like, and I imagine them to look a bit like meter maids. Or tax auditors. But perhaps that is unfair to meter maids and tax auditors.

I do realize that math problems are a great way to flex your math muscles, and that learning how to solve them will make me a better mathematician.

That, however, didn’t stop me from approaching the word problem section of my homework with much trepidation. And there they were — plenty of train questions. There were also plenty of interest (as in money) questions, and plenty of mixture questions.

I will not pretend that any of these problems came easy. But they were not as hard as I expected, either. The biggest challenge is working out the formula, and even basic formulas like Interest = Principal x Rate x Time aren’t enough to solve the problem. Nope, you have to tweak things, and at times the tweaks don’t seem to make sense.

Still, with plenty of practice I was able to get it. That is, until the TRL book threw me a curve — value mixture problems. I spent an infuriating 30 minutes trying to figure out how many pounds of cashews I needed to mix with a certain amount of peanuts to make a mix worth a certain amount. The reason it was so tricky is that not just one, but two of the values were missing, and the formulas I was trying didn’t successfully address that problem.

Gaah. It drove me nuts — sorry about the pun — and I feared wouldn’t ever solve it. It was the GCF conundrum all over again! And yet again, the tutors in the math lab were unavailable.

This time, though, I didn’t bother my mathematician friend. I did what I often do — I went on the Internet. Bless the Internet! It had a simple solution, and once I got a model for how to solve such problems, I was able to solve them, even when they involved tweaking.

This is a good sign.

I leave you with a word problem to solve. It does not involve trains.

Famed director and fugitive Roman Polanski picks up an award at a director’s shindig in Zurich and leaves at 10 a.m. in a limo traveling at 85 miles an hour. At noon, the Swiss authorities show up at the site with an arrest warrant and set off in hot pursuit in their police cars at 105 miles an hour. How long does it take for police to catch up to Polanski? What time of day do they threaten to extradite him? How far from the venue full of indignant Hollywood artistes who will later sign a petition are they?

I will supply the answer in my next entry!

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


  • (here from Shakesville)

    Hmmm. I get them catching him 8.5 hours later, at 8:30 pm, 892.5 miles away, which is 1,436.3 km. Unfortunately, according to Google maps, this would put them out of Switzerland, all the way through France, and verging on Madrid, Spain. I hope my calculations are wrong, as the Swiss police would be a bit out of their jurisdiction.

  • A+, Pbrim!
    And you’re absolutely correct that Switzerland is way too small for such a long chase. Did I mention that, for the purposes of this problem, the cops are Interpol? (;

  • Ha ha! As a math text book editor, and therefore one of the writers of word problems, I find the meter maid image extremely funny.

    In our defense, let me say that the current trends in curriculum include a big push toward making word problems applicable to real life. We (meaning the team producing the particular curriculum I work on) really try to start by introducing a real-world context, then teach the corresponding math, then show students how the math is used in the context.

    Of course, that doesn’t help you when you are using an old book. I’m glad that despite the book’s shortcomings, you are having some success.

    As a female in a math field, stories of females’ struggles in math are very interesting to me, and math anxiety is a research interest of mine. So I really enjoy your blog. Best of luck — I’m rooting for you!

  • Thanks so much for the support, Katie!
    So far so good — my ultimate goal is to get through Calculus.
    And thank you also for putting a face (or a cyberface, anyway) on a profession I’ve been curious about. Certain professions — mine included — get more play in the arts than others. But I would enjoy a tv series that includes a character who writes word problems for math textbooks. At least physicists are getting some exposure on “Big Bang Theory.”
    Thanks again!

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