My Relationship wit Math: it was good, until it got complicated


Last week, I bought a TI-89 calculator.  It’s like the calculator you used to get by calculus in high school, only this one is better.

I’ve wanted one for a long time.  My freshman year at Boston College, I got a TI-89 because I was well on my way to majoring in math.  This union lasted all of two weeks because someone permanently deprived it from my possession without my permission.  I never bothered to replace it because, being Japanese, I learned math without using a calculator. Besides, since I studied “pure” math rather than “applied” math, I rarely saw numbers by my junior year so a calculator hardly would have been useful.

But I never forgot that my union with a TI-89 was abruptly cut short.  Now that I’m in a profession that requires me to crunch some numbers, mostly related to boring financial statements, I was constantly reminded of my detachment issues.  So I just went ahead and spent $150 on a calculator that is so powerful it can solve world hunger and graph in four dimensions if we had a fourth.  The calculator is an overkill and I’ve been showing it off to everyone at the office who couldn’t care less.

I work in a profession with colleagues whose strengths are mostly in areas outside of numbers (excepting my former office mate who was also a math major), but it’s no exaggeration to say that math got me to where I am.  Most of my early academic career constituted achievement in math and very little else.  It wasn’t that I was particularly skilled in math; with American math education an abomination, my parents sent me to juku where I learned math that was more appropriate to my grade level. Since I’d already “learned” what was being taught at my high school, it would have taken a miracle for me not to have excelled in math.  I used my good fortune of just happening to be in a country where mathematical mediocrity passed for mathematical excellence to inflate my cumulative GPA in high school, get into college where again I inflated my grades with math, then got into a good law school–albeit one year later than I wanted and where, incidentally, I inflated my GPA by focusing on the only courses that dealt with numbers:  tax–and landed a nice job.

Math, then, was what I was good at and not necessarily what I enjoyed.  Truth be told, I liked math, but it was only to the extent that I was good at it.  For the longest time, it was the only thing I was good at, the only subject I could claim I excelled.  People who know me from middle and high school periods probably associate me more with math than politics or law.  I liked math back then, but not in the way I loved the stock market and history.  I liked math for what it did for me, not for what it was.

It wasn’t until well into college, when I started taking advanced courses, that I learned to appreciate math’s magnificence.  It’s somewhat tragic that I grew passionate about math just as I stopped understanding it.  For obvious reasons, the trick that I used in high school–“I did it before, so I can do it better the second time around”–wasn’t going to work for too long.   I began being exposed to new math in sophomore year, and by senior year, I was completely clueless as to what was going on in class.  I confess that  I collect the semi-annual college-level academic journal that I receive as a member of member of Pi Mu Epsilon, a math honor society, solely as a status symbol.

Still, I did have that brief year to two years where math provided great satisfaction.  That period in which I learned Combinatorics and Complex Analysis presented me with the wonders of the world.  It helped that I had a great professor, Marc Reeder.  On the first day of my first class with him, he covered the topic I was already well versed in, but I could tell he was special.  He not only has a knack for explaining things in a way that one can easily understand and visualize but he also gives occasional life lessons that are deeply reflective.  To see what I mean, watch his interview discussing his latest paper.   I learned as much about life from him as I did math.  If I failed to understand what he was teaching–and I did in Modern Algebra–the fault lies with my limited abilities, not his teaching.

It’s been so long since I studied math, I don’t think I can ever get back into it again.  But I proudly consider it as one of the three intellectual interests that I’ve pursued in my life.  I’m fond of describing the differences in the way my three interests approach a problem this way:

Let’s say you have problem X and are looking for the solution Y.  In math, you start with X and take logical steps to either find Y or conclude that Y doesn’t exist.  In political science, you look at X, debate it all day and night and agree to disagree about what Y is.  In law, you begin with Y and look for ad hoc rationalizations that will get you from X to Y.

I still find the legal method the biggest bullshit, the political method most enjoyable and the mathematical method the most satisfying, even if I understand it the least.

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7 Responses to “My Relationship wit Math: it was good, until it got complicated”


  1. 1 Tristan November 14, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    I admit a special fondness for the TI-89. Thanks to that I scored much better on both SAT and AP exams than I otherwise would have–probably helped contribute to actually going to BC.

    • 2 joesas November 15, 2009 at 11:14 pm

      Tristan,

      So you had a TI-89 in high school? Wow, dude, that’s an overkill. You know, I don’t think calculators help you do better in math, but TI-89 is probably an exception. I believe that’s why it’s banned at most exams…

  2. 3 Joseph Lee November 15, 2009 at 12:51 am

    Hmm,I find that the legal method is the biggest BS, which is what makes it the most enjoyable. The political method most boring and pointless (note the lack of movement and closure), and the mathematical method the most painful, excruciating, torturous, lugubrious, foul, vile, putrid, despicable, etc. But then again, I am a philosophy major.

    • 4 joesas November 15, 2009 at 11:17 pm

      Joseph,

      I can already tell u want to be a lawyer. LOL. Politic’s pointlessness is what makes it so fun! It’s so irrelevant. Looking at what you like (law, philosophy), it’s clear to me that essentially, you enjoy not having any answers but just thinking theoretically about things. And using big words like “lugubrious.” I think that’s a made up word. That doesn’t seem like a word. It’s long and spelled weird.

  3. 5 Joseph Lee November 22, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    Haha, lugubrious is a word. Look it up in OED. The best part about that word? I learned it from disney’s hercules. That’s right. Who said that cartoons aren’t educational?

    • 6 joesas November 24, 2009 at 10:20 pm

      Sorry, Joseph. I don’t do big words. My cut off is 3 syllables and that word is clearly at least 4. Disney should stop being so evil spreading around propaganda like that.


  1. 1 In Defense of My Education… « The World According to Joe Trackback on February 28, 2011 at 6:03 am

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