The number Four

In a moment of madness, a fit of folly, an instant of insanity (enough with the alliterations already!) I decided to alienate the remainder of my readers completely.

Yup, I decided to write about math. Or maths, if you prefer the UK version. Actually I’m going to write about arithmetic, although most people make no distinction between the two.  For the world at large, 2+2 is math, and the square root of 4 is complicated math.

Why don’t most kids like math?

Because they don’t see a point to it. When you learn English, it serves a clear purpose. Communication. Without it you can’t speak, read, write, pick up girls (or boys, whatever takes your fancy), understand a movie, or be on Facebook. Western alphabets are not symbolic in the sense of the Chinese or Korean, it’s the words they form that become the symbols.

The letters are building blocks and they lead to the finished product – a word. Those in turn lead to a higher level finished product, a sentence. And we are a product-based species. We like tangible outputs. From a kid’s point of view, math has one finished product (the answer), but the reward is abstract, someone marking it right or (often) wrong.

Getting your spelling right is similar to doing the right thing with numbers. If you can’t spell, you have trouble distinguishing words, and that hurts your writing. A couple of days ago,  Zinio ran a story about Tiger Woods in which they quoted “his pension for leaving voicemails…”. The spell checker will have left it intact – grammar checker probably, I’m not sure. Common sense checker would have written penchant.

Churchill hated math as a child because you couldn’t be nearly right. Math is binary: right or wrong. Later on in life, other guys did the math for him and he could make the binary decision: yes or no. At the other end of the spectrum were caballists trying to work out how the letters in Hitler equated to the number 666, well known to correspond to the Antichrist, Satan himself. This stuff is still ongoing, and pretty random.

Using the same “logic” for Barack Obama, DOB August 4th 1961, if you take the number of centuries after the birth of Christ, appropriate when hunting for the Antichrist (19), subtract the month (8) and the day (4), you get 7, then add the number of letters in Obama (5) and divide by the two devilish names (2) you get 6. So you’re left with 6-6-1. The 1 stands for the first name, the fact that he is President of the U.S. (nicely conspiratorial), and the number of letters in the name is 6. Therefore 6-6-1 is really 6-6-6, therefore Obama is the Antichrist. This is what the Portuguese call the lógica da batata, potato logic, aka crap.

After children learn to count, they see the point in other basic uses of numbers, such as giving or counting change (although cash tills, calculators, and credit cards have that one covered). Numbers are apparently good also for sports scores, and US kids who deal in basketball and baseball, extending to mystical concepts such as batting averages, should be much more switched on than European kids. Most soccer games run to one or two goals. Salaries add a few zeroes on that.

The greatest invention in math is credited to the Indians (are you surprised?) – it’s the invention of the zero. I pay tribute to it in The India Road, through the eyes of Abraham the Astronomer. One of the learned Brahmins teaching the Spy says:

“How did the Romans lose their empire? Was it because of their greed? Their orgies? Dissipation? Perhaps in part. But to manage an empire of that magnitude without the zero? Impossible.” 

Years later the astronomer Abraham smiled as he read those words in Lisbon. Few people appreciated that the zero was the most important number of all. It counted for nothing and for everything. Without it, you could not divide and multiply, only split and tally. Without it, a nation might conquer an empire, but not keep it.

The ancient math systems in Aramaic, Phoenician, Mayan, and a host of other cultures counted from one to nine in finger-like symbols. The problem is that after four the number of sticks, lines, or notches becomes difficult to read. Georges Ifrah, a French author of Moroccan and Jewish background, calls it our “limits of perception”. Many cultures therefore came out with a different symbol for five, such as the Roman V, or when tallying used the fence bar, a line drawn across four horizontal I. So four is IIII, but five is IIII. I learned that in grade school, and still use it.

Ifrah argues persuasively that our limit of perception is four.  After that, we need a little help.

If you look at:


and at:


Both numbers are 9, but the bottom version is much quicker to interpret. But let’s face it, just writing 9 is a whole lot easier. So where did the Romans mess it up? This sticky approach is a pain for calculations. Many ancient civilizations tried, and foremost as a tool was the use of pebbles. Which became specialized with different shapes. Then threaded through into the abacus.

Another Ifrah nugget? The Latin word for pebble is Calculus. So I guess this math post is talking history after all.

What makes the zero so all important? Position. 10 dollars and 1000 dollars? The one is still a one! What’s the big deal? The zeroes. More digits means a higher number, but in Roman numbering, XXXVIII means 38, XLIV means 44, and L means 50.  Now you try working out L minus XXXVIII. Alphabet soup!

Having the zero and nine other digits gave us Base 10. And from that we have built a civilization. 

Another point our friend Georges (no there aren’t two of ’em, the guy’s French) makes is that our general mindset is: one, two, many. If that’s the case, and considering the lack of enjoyment and aptitude (the two often walk along hand in hand) for math, is it a real surprise that so many people slip on the dual banana skins of credit card debt and mortgage defaults? Apart from the natural penchant (pension?) of humans to compete, just as other primates, and have more than the guy next door, I think a whole bunch of people out there just don’t have a clue about the math that permeates their lives. It strongly influences the way they spend, manage, and invest. It’s like speaking English with the verbs missing.

Math is the only universal language. Not English, Chinese, or Portuguese. Maybe if we all agree that 1 means yes and 0 means no, 2 means bus and 3 means airport, we might find a written set of common nouns for simple communication. Or just hold up fingers like in the old days.

One of my children had a struggle with math, many years ago in a galaxy far far away. I taught her two things:

Simplify, don’t multiply. The whole business with the zeroes is you can chop ’em off. Numbers go into each other (sometimes), some play nicely, some don’t at all. Even numbers play more nicely than odd ones. But odd ones know wierder games.

Numbers will be your friends. Numbers are like those shy kids who you’d like to get to know at school but can never quite get there. Play with them, and they will play back. You’ll have a new friend, and this one’s for life.


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