Scott's Entry #4
(He Mounts A Small Soapbox Here)

"New Math"

Remember when you were in grade school?  Good... 'cuz I think about that time alot.  I am a big fan of "Red Rover... Red Rover... Let T.J. Come Over" and all that jazz.  In fact, I still get a little misty-eyed when I walk into any building which smells of stale milk and lunch boxes in need of a good scrubbing.

This past week, Gabby and I were back in school ourselves.  However, this time there are no wacky lunch ladies - no plastic trays filled with "Shepherd's Pie" and prune plum desserts.   Instead, we found ourselves listening to Daniel, an instructor at the local language school, describe the Mayan way of life.  He's from the Quiche region (pronounced "Kee-Chay" for any of you who are now thinking of French egg pies.)  I'll be doing a lot of work there this year, so I was really interested in the world view of the people there.

Scott The Giant Hangin' Out In An Indigenous Market
(Where's My Beanstalk?" I Ask.  I'll never get used to being the biggest guy for 500 miles.)

Perhaps the hardest part of the presentation was listening to how different the Mayan world view is compared to our view of life in the states.  The Mayans believe that God himself is present with us here as Mother Earth.  Evidence of this higher being's existence is manifested in all of the blessings we get from the earth - trees for shade and shelter, corn for our meals, water for our crops and ourselves, and air to fill our lungs.  Everything we need God has given to us as Mother Earth.  Everything else is just fluff.  The goal is to be "present" in this world... know your neighbor... be with him in joy and suffering... and feel "real" life.. not an artificial one that travels over airwaves.  Though the Mayan poverty is very sad, their simplicity is truly a thing of beauty. 


What's more, Daniel said that to live on the Earth, one must give back.  Every Mayan ceremony is directed toward honoring our Earth.  Anytime something is taken from the Earth, be it a harvest of corn, or a nice plump juicy steak from the herd, there is a lavish ceremony directed toward filling the Earth with new spirit to provide for more blessings in the future.  In all honesty, this whole idea made me feel a bit uncomfortable.  As Daniel talked, I was picturing myself back in Austin, driving 75mph in my gas-guzzling SUV while listening to a cool 80's radio station and eating "to-go" snack foods that were created in some underground lab in Muncie, Indiana.

While I was imagining a battered and bloody Mother Earth that had been raped of all of her blessings by yours truly, Daniel began to scroll some mathematical symbols on the board.  He talked about the significance of the symbols, and how they are used to help bring abstract ideas into reality.  I thought about my own favorite abstraction - TV - which I try and bring into my real life all the time.  However, most of the time this abstraction takes me out of the "present" and into Mr. Roger's land of "make believe".  For instance, watching TV makes me believe (subconsciously or not) things like...

  • 99.7% of the population SHOULD BE really good looking, and the remaining 0.3% is made up of chubby, funny, weathermen
  • Eating obscure "foods" like buffalo intestines and risking your life in various stunts is a viable career option for those looking to earn a fair wage.  
  • A $3000/month apartment in New York City is well within the means of a coffee shop waitress and her part-time-chef best friend.

Anyway, back to the math.  Daniel started talking about what all of the symbols represented in terms of modern day values... and discussed what he thought the Maya take on math symbols might be.  It was incredibly interesting and insightful, and it got me thinking about what I learned in math class in grade school.  I followed Daniel's pattern of logic and used my Surrey Hills Elementary experience to bring these ideas to light in my own life.  Try to follow it if you dare.

When we were in grade school, the first thing we learned in math was good 'ol addition. The examples were simple enough, and we enjoyed learning how to make numbers bigger.  For instance,  2+2 = 4   3+3 = 6, and so on.  But... let's not forget the mutant animal that our teachers liked to call the "story problem."  

If Jonnie has 4 apples, and then takes 5 more from the bushel, and picks up 3 more from Sally, how many apples does he have?

Answer:  Enough to start a small corner market, which will soon be mowed under by a large 7-million square-foot mega mall.  

Now that I look back, that little "plus" sign taught me that more is better.  Heck, even symbols used to compare numbers have an interesting translation in our language. 
> and < aren't even called "more than" an "less than".  Instead, we call the "more than" symbol "GREATER THAN."  Makes me feel a bit sorry for the number on the other side of the equation.  I guess it's just "NOT SO GREAT."  Still, I feel that it's human nature to like bigger and better.  We all do.  In my current situation, I would LOVE a room bigger than 8' x 7', and a warm shower.  Some days, when I've eaten yet ANOTHER piece of unidentified meat and my 7,000th corn tortilla, I would LOVE to add a plane ticket home to the contents of my wallet. It's just the way our minds work.

-  Subtraction is a different animal.  We learn that one next.  In fact, I learned the symbol's name as something else... its called the "take away" sign.  So, let me practice my skills again... 4-2 = 2  6-3 = 3  WOW!  Nice work, eh?  How's about another story problem?

If Ernie is on the playground with 9 apples, and Butch comes by and takes away 7 of them, and Sally comes by later and sweet talks him out of 2 and then goes to hang out with Butch, What is Ernie left with?

Answer:  A bruised ego and, at age 34, five years of therapy at $250/hour.

Here's what I learned - subtraction is bad.  Loss isn't good.  We should protect what we have so that it won't get "taken away."  Guard it or lose it.  Having less is not a desired outcome.

X  Moving on, we learned all about the beauty of multiplication.  It had all of the benefits of addition, but in Reader's Digest condensed form.  It required some memorization, but once you figured it out, it was a cool tool.  2 x 2 = 4  3 x 3 = 9.  And... another story problem...

Bill starts a company by building one software program.  If he sells said program for $99.95 to 200 squillion people across the world, what is the result?

Answer:  One really, really rich nerd who STILL can't get anyone to sit with him at his lunch table.

Though I learned that multiplication can be used to show the power of compounding wealth and goods, it does have its drawbacks.  This kind of massive growth and acquisition can simply distort reality.  To give you an example, I will paraphrase a "story problem" I read in the paper on the anniversary of Elvis' death in 2001.

When Elvis Presley died in 1977, there were only 12 Elvis impersonators.  Today, in 2001, there are over 30,000 impersonators.  Multiply this rate of growth by 20 or 25.  What is the result?

Answer (and though I'm paraphrasing, I'm not lying):  By the year 2025, 1 out of every 4 people on the globe will be an Elvis impersonator.

So, believe it or not, but you gotta' admit, when it comes to numbers, one can EASILY be deceived.  The real "gold nugget" of the math abstractions lies in perhaps our least favorite symbol.

  Division is a nasty animal.  It's hard to do.  Especially LONG division when you have a big ol' number and you have to split it into a BUNCH of different chunks.  However, after hearing Daniel talk about his world view and the view of his people, it got me to thinking.

Division is actually a very cool concept.  It's not about adding, or multiplying.  It's not about taking away.  Instead, it's about sharing.  In school, we were all taught to share.  Still, our competitive lives make it difficult to learn this virtue.  Heck, in grade school, I can remember the dreaded "reading groups."  There was the RED reading group for the high flyers, and the BLUE reading group for those who were somewhere in between "Run, Spot, Run" and "Call Me Ishmael."  Finally, there was the BROWN reading group, whose members were expected to achieve the same status as their abysmal name. 

As much as we would all like to believe the old saying that "the squeaky wheel gets the grease," in truth, those who are at the front of the pack (the RED reading group) are typically the ones lavished with attention and praise.  It's the same problem faced by the Mayans in Guatemala.  Their simple lives were a threat to progress, so they have been pushed to the fringes of civilization.  In the nearly 30 years preceding 1996, their towns were burned and their men "disappeared."  Today, they are largely ignored.  In the upcoming Presidential election, they are being used solely as pawns, with one candidate actually paying the poor to riot and yell out his name in the streets last July.  Many think he will also pay for their votes come November.  The newspaper called out his party for embezzling nearly $1 billion from the country's coffers.  It's sad... really sad.

Many people have asked me why I'm here for 12 months.  I think it is so I can re-learn division.  First, I am here to totally absorb this way of life.  It is foreign, but it is good.  Still, once I really understand the lives of these people, I fully believe that I can divide myself up.  Divide my talents... divide my blessings... divide my time... and share my life with others as they share theirs with me. 

Will we change the world while we're in Guatemala?  No.  Will we make a difference?  Who knows.  Still, I would like to believe that there is something inherently beneficial about simply being here.  We're not adding.  We're not taking away or worrying about losses.  We're simply becoming a part of something larger and sharing in the experience. So, as I dismount my soapbox, I only make a few suggestions.  Find a way to add some more "division" in your life.  Take the mass quantities of value inside you and spread it around.  Share a story.  Lend an ear.  Offer compassion... and be present for friend and stranger.  Don't worry, you're not being graded.  I like to think that every new day we're given is extra credit.