15 September 2011

A not-so beautiful mind

Two trains of thought this morning, both linked by a common thread ...

First: I'm not good at math. I've heard that your neural pathways for math are developed by about age 7, sort of defining your capacity to comprehend math at higher levels. Not to say you stop learning -- I mean, how many 7-year-olds are doing advanced calculus? -- but just that the framework is there, and there's only going to be so much you absorb as you learn the mechanics of it. (Of course, by age 12, some of us should be expected to be disproving Einstein ...)

For me, that absorption stopped for good when I was 15. I had barely made it through algebra in 8th and 9th grades, and by the time we got to proofs in 10th-grade geometry, I was done. Mrs. Tiemeyer (spelling? not sure of her name now) was our teacher, and I remember her one shock of white hair and sitting in the back of the class, chair propped against the back wall, making race-car noises under my breath. But I don't remember how to do a proof to save my life. (And, in fact, I almost flunked out of college because of logical proofs, which follow the same pattern. I still say it was an attempt to control my thinking.)

I scraped through, probably because my parents required me to sit at the kitchen table and do homework every night -- 1 hour for every C, 2 for every D, and a whopping 4 for every F on mid-term or quarter notices -- and somehow made it into 11th-grade calculus. I lasted about four weeks, but it was clear by mid-semester that I was on my way out -- class was right after lunch, and though the teacher put me front and center in the room, I would pass out cold, folded over head-first onto my desk, fast asleep with drool running down my cheek, nearly every day. By Christmas, I was forced out, placed instead into "Business Math" -- the only math class where you could use a calculator, aimed as it was at remedial students. We had a great teacher, had fun with it, I met my graduation requirement -- and never took another math class again.

(Funny how the brain works -- all this was going on while I was in AP classes, taking two language courses, blowing out the bell curve on the state-mandated reading comprehension tests, and acing the English portion of the ACT. But don't ever ask me to do long division!)

Second: There is actually business in the bike business. Or rather, there needs to be if you want to be successful. The best bike shops and suppliers figure this out -- look at what Chris Kegel is doing up at Wheel & Sprocket, or Stan Day at SRAM, or the Burke family at Trek (Go Marquette!). Sure, it's a fun industry to work in -- bikes are awesome, and it's what attracts so many of us. But unless you make the transition from bike-cool to bike-business, you are not going to survive. Want to make a million dollars in the bike industry? Start with two million. The number of unique retailers in this country has shrunk by as much as 35% in the past three years alone, while some suppliers and retailers have been going gangbusters: it's not enough to be selling bikes, you gotta' be selling.

And along with selling comes number crunching, which brings me to today. We're about to close out the third quarter of the year, and begin budgeting and forecasting for 2012. When you're a communications guy, you don't need to do much beyond guessing what your pet projects and travel costs will be for next year. But when you're in sales, it gets a bit more complicated -- you're also expected to forecast what you think your customers will buy. And that requires some number crunching. It's great that Excel will do your calculations for you, but when you don't always understand what those calculations entail, it gets to be a bit of a bugger!

And so here I sit, massive spreadsheet open across two computer screens, analyzing and trying to forecast what my part of the domestic bicycle parts market looks like in 2012. It's a bit daunting, and is a far cry from the handshake-and-a-dinner that face-time sales entails. But what's awesome, what I've come to discover over the past nearly two years that I've been in this role, is that I enjoy it. I may not be good at math, but there's something exciting in the give-and-take that reveals a somewhat accurate prediction. And though sometimes it's the bike stuff that keeps me engaged, it's the business side of it that's turned out to be really, really fun. Because ultimately that's what's going to keep us in business; that's what's going to make us successful.

I just need to make sure to triple-check every Excel file before I let anyone else see it.


Marticus said...

Interesting post. I build forecasts for a living in another industry, and I agree with you that it can be a fun gig. However, some of what you wrote earlier is, well, wildly off base to put it mildly. Capacity for mathematical aptitude formed at age 7? That's not true. Math is nothing more than the language of scientific inquiry. It's the framework of how things work. Treating it as a set of steps (the "mechanics" as you put it) is why so many people struggle, adn that's a failing ont he part of many teachers. Math isn't a discrete set of steps that get you from question A to answer B. It's an integrated process by which results emerge from a set of inputs and the relationships of those inputs to one another. In that way, it's not unlike all those other AP classes you took. People shut down when they are intimidated by the symbols and seemingly rigid requirements of the thought process required. But in reality, those things are just methods of making it all easier. You use the essentials of methematics in every single thing you do. We all do. To put it in an extreme, if you are still living as an adult, you are either pretty good at the practice of mathematics or else you are the luckiest SOB in the world, and probability more or less guarantees that "luck" is at best a temporary thing and therefore you'd be due for a pretty nasty "personal extinction event" any moment now. I say that because, in order to avoid the millions of random things that would conspire to put you in your grave within any discrete time period, you have to be able to think about your own probability of success and failure with any single action and react accordingly. And it becomes a pretty seamless, unconscious prcess with experience (when was the last time you voluntarily played kickball on a freeway, for example?) The ability to subjectively assess probability for success is a vital element of adult thinking, and it's completely mathematical in nature.

So don't sell yourself short. The fatc that you're alive to be sitting in front of that computer typing this post is evidence that you're actually not that bad of an applied mathematician. And in reality the one controlling your thoughts is actually that little part of yourself that tells you not to play kickball on I-95.

Chris said...

So I'm no researcher nor educator, but the way I read this: http://smp.stanford.edu/publications/Menon_Developmental_Cognitive_10 is that indeed, the primary building blocks for mathematical development are in place by age 8. After that (give or take a few years), the ability to process math moves to other pathways in the brain -- development does not halt, but from an educational standpoint, we would do well to shift our focus by about 5th grade or so it would seem. Somewhere along the line, I read something about this, or a similar study, and have just taken it for gospel -- particularly so, since it fits my version of things. That's the beauty of a blog, it's a window into the twisted mind that is mine, and mine alone.

(And, I would argue, that your own example of risk assessment and probability of outcome are in place already in 8-year-olds -- they may not have the experience to use it for every situation, but they're darned good at deciding whether it's worth it to jump off the roof of a building! So is it true that everything I ever needed to know, I learned in kindergarten?)

I happy for you that you see math as a language. I do not. I really wish I could -- I tried really, really hard once upon a time to understand how math can be both abstract and absolute at the same time, and could never reconcile the two. I speak three languages, each with their own symbols and grammatical rules, but I'll be damned if I ever could see math in the same way -- it's not intimidating to me, it just does not make sense.

G13 said...

Chris, I am the exact opposite of you! I find languages extremly illogical. There are rules which do not apply to everything. I try to stick with those but go off the theory if is sounds good and correct...then I am leaving it. It's funny when I was taking the practice test for the GMAT, I was getting 95% of the math correct. Yeah! I still know my shit! And then when I went to the English side...I was getting 50% and have no clue why things were wrong even after it listed "correct" answers. My math I never double check and just for fun here...I am not going to check my writing 2-3x before sending this. (and sometimes it's just typing that is messed up). I spell by memorizing words not by sounding out because it doesn't work!

My point here is...most people either have a strength in Math or language. They can do both but one will always be easier. Yes, I took German and I thought it was easier to understand than English. Doesn't mean I knwo it today. My strength was in Math. It doesn't mean much you learn, it's how difficult it is to understand.

Marticus said...

Chris - I guess I have a pretty high level of skepticism on studies like that. They're often tied completely to grants and the outcomes are often more political than real. You'd be amazed at how many of oft-quoted precedent-setting studies are actually complete bullshit. The stats involved are usually the tell-tale sign of bad research. (Never trust anything that draws conclusions based on means unless you can prove underlying Normality. Any distribution that is non-central is not well described by its mean.)

Anyway, I wasn't trying to refute your post. Just trying to point out that mathematical modeling is much more heuristic than most people realize. And most people are already doing it in most every aspect of their lives, even if they don't think of their decision making process that way. The "language" that math is structures the process by which thoughts are translated to action without violating the immutable laws of the universe. I suppose there is a whole slew of philosophical arguments that could be made about multiple intelligences and the difference between practical mathematics and theory. But my point is much simpler - does it matter at all? The practical ability to model your world is where we live and the ability to operate in that space keeps us all ticking. Any other area we may use it -- be it market share projections on components, or the purely theoretical constructs of the most advanced quantum theory -- is merely an extension of that same process. And that was my only point. Cheers!