Brian MacMillan

Mathematics for Imbeciles

BM Mathematics for Imbeciles

Mathematics for Imbeciles

With innumerate imbeciles in charge of all aspects of our lives, few can dispute the need for this modest book. For an author writing in this field, the challenge lies in limiting the content.

Let us begin with what this book is not. If writing for a professional reader, I might start with a juicy problem in fluid dynamics. If popularizing for the numerate, I would probably begin with a folksy anecdote, perhaps relating the story of how Thales first conceived of e when dunked head first in olive oil – a punishment meted out by angry farmers after he famously cornered the olive press market in Ephesus.

But I am writing for imbeciles, which raises tricky, perhaps even intractable issues about how to captivate their short attention spans, pierce through their narcissism and hammer ideas through their thick skulls. My plan is a series of short, clear synopses and lots of pictures.

The book is divided into three sections. The first addresses the simple numbers, including both simplistic and perspicacious, and then moves on to the challenging numbers. The middle – and largest section – deals with the impenetrable numbers, including the so-called three Is – imperturbable, inconvenient and impossible numbers. Note that mystifying numbers are expressly excluded because this author believes that what makes these numbers mystifying lies in the minds of the student, rather than in the nature of the number itself. This is in sharp contrast to the impenetrables, which are impenetrable to the stupid and the clever alike, and are therefore included.

A final section deals with miscellany, including flimsy, opaque, redundant and self-referential numbers.

There is a bonus section at the end which includes two brief essays on personal finance.

Although intended and written for imbeciles, it is hoped that other groups, like lazy, shallow, dim-witted and dull people may also benefit from my modest efforts.

Chapter 1: Lackadaisicals

Lackadaisical numbers, expressions and functions have an actual value that is always less than its potential value, or as  computer scientist Professor Andrew Winthrop puts it, “a lackadaisical is an identity that is less than itself.” Lackadaisicals include probabilities that produce results  with a margin of error greater than fifty percent; any result one  or more orders of magnitude smaller than its significant digit; and all distributions based on non-random samples. Some psychologists  claim they are useful in enumerating false  modesty and  hyperbole. In mathematics they are used  extensively in political polling, pharmaceutical testing, punditry and last- minute master’s thesis surveys.  They are also used in pharmacology to miscalculate doses, and by weight-watchers everywhere to count calories.

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