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BBHQ Boomer Essays:

The New Math

Our Boomer-In-Charge at BBHQ, Hershel Chicowitz, writes about boomer memories and current events... from a boomer's perspective. He is sometimes funny, sometimes provocative, some-
times a little of each. We hope you get a kick out of our Boomer Essays.

A few years ago I bought a calculator for my neighbor, who was opening her own beauty shop. It seemed to be an essential tool to a young woman who could do wonders with hair, but could not read the electronic speedometer on her car; at least that’s what she always told the police. She was thrilled to receive the calculator, but brought it back to me the next day saying it didn’t work. We’ll take care of that, I said, a little bit embarrassed. But thank goodness I had the sense to ask her what was wrong before I stormed into Best Buy and demanded a replacement. She showed me that when you entered seventy-five cents (.75) and added fifteen cents (.15) to it, the result was not ninety cents. It was .9, not .90. It did not work right.


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When I was in tenth grade, they put me in an advanced math class. I did not feel particularly comfortable there, but I squeaked by. We sailed through Venn diagrams, some basic trigonometry, quadratic equations, polynomials, and I don’t know what else. That must have given me an inferiority complex, 'cause I struggled with trig in college, and dropped out of math as soon as I could. No rocket science for this kid.

But it caught up to me when I took a graduate economics class. We spent half the term calculating the standard deviation, variance and a bunch of other junk; I have no idea why; I guess they just ran out of things to teach that dealt with economics. After a few supply and demand concepts, elasticity of demand, and the Federal Reserve, there is not much else concrete to know about economics. All the rest is just supposition, theory, and an abundance of social policy. Not to pile on economists here, but it was famed economist John Kenneth Galbrith who said that "economics is a very useful form of employment for economists." That about says it all.

Anyway, I was more than a little concerned when the supervisor of my first real-world job asked me how good I was at statistics. I bluffed my way through an answer, but I was ready to hang it up and look for another job. Oh, I could calculate a standard deviation, but I had absolutely no idea what it was used for. But about 30 minutes into this job, I realized that what he meant by statistics and what I thought was statistics were two entirely different things. To him, statistics meant keeping track of the number of widgets produced, ordered, sold, and returned. This was nothing more than third-grade math.... or at least what had been third-grade math for me.

Such was my introduction to the real world. In most of the real world, you don’t have to know much beyond addition, subtraction, multiplication, and some simple division. And with about a jillion calculators around, how difficult can it be?

Apparently, just a tad over the head of most of today’s workers, that’s how difficult. I always anguish when I go the deli to buy some roast beef. It starts as soon as I take number and patiently wait my turn. I am number 68; according to the electronic counter on the back wall, they are currently serving number 60. The highly skilled clerk looks at the counter and punches a button to advance it to the next number. But then she has to turn around and look at the counter again to know what number to call next. "Now serving number... sixty....... one." Come on, lady; 60 plus 1 is 61! Always has been; always will be.

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