Numbers vs. words

I’ve never considered myself a math person. I’m a word person.

Sometimes, when I tell people this, they say, but you’re a PROGRAMMER!

It was the perception for most of my youth that programming and math were symbiotic disciplines. This misperception kept me from computers and programming for a long time. It was only the desire to eat that got me looking to the internet for my livelihood. And it was then that I discovered that programming isn’t all about numbers.

To a certain extent, programming is like math. There are formulas and rules of logic that must be learned and mastered. But programming is a lot like writing.

Both programming and writing are about solving problems. As any experienced writer knows, especially writers who deal in structured genres, such as news stories or essays, the exercise of writing often involves figuring out what you need to say within the confines of the tools the English language provides to you. There are rules to be followed, and audience expectations to be met.

Programming is like that. The creative side of programming involves finding the most elegant solution to any given problem.

Programming reminds me of writing news stories, and writing inverted pyramid news stories always reminded me of writing poems. So, you see, for me, writing code is no less creative than writing couplets.

But there is that math thing.

The more I get into programming, the more I regret all of the math classes I slept through, and all of the math solutions I assiduously worked to forget as soon as the term was over.

The other day, a book slipped into the newsroom for review called “The Math Explorer: A Journey Though the Beauty if Mathematics.”

The book purports to be a breezy, entertaining explanation of mathematics for the lay person.

I’m probably a step or two below “lay” when it comes to math, but I thought I would give it a try.

I’m only a few pages into it, but I found these thoughts interesting:

Mathematics is an intellectual endeavor governed by precise, unchanging rules. It is therefore far more predictable and, in a sense, more comforting, than almost any other discipline. You will either have the correct or incorrect answer to a problem. There is no such thing as a mathematical answer that is “sort of” correct. This state of affairs is somewhat different among the liberal arts where subjective interpretations of a literary work, for example, can cause an answer or a response to be viewed by the all-knowing instructor as being anything from “marvelous” to “partially correct” to “possible” to “absolutely dense.”

But that is precisely my problem with math. For most of my life I’ve had little interest in formulaic answers. How many times can you solve 2+2 and still find it interesting? How many times can you calculate the radius of a circle and still get excited about it. How much depth is there in finding the factorial square root of a subquadrant triangle multiplied by PI? (Ed: Did you just make that bullshit up? Yes? I have no idea what it means, if any thing).

A poem, on the other hand, can be read a thousand times and never be read the same way twice. Words when used to convey emotion and experience are never precise as numbers, no matter how well intentioned the author. And whether you are talking literature, history or politics, there is always something to learn, a new way of viewing any given object, of parsing any given sentiment, of layering on new perceptions or new experiences.

I can understand why, maybe, some people may find that sort of marsh-land existance unsettling. The instability of ideas can be daunting. But, to me at least, human existance is far too complex to reduce to formulas or pat answers. If we want to understand the human race, we need to delve into art and literature and history. We need to find as many pieces of the puzzle as possible, realizing it will never be complete.

Obviously, math is important. All of human scientific advancement and achievement is a credit to the mathematicians who worked out all of these great number crunching miracles. And I now see that I need to pay more attention to math and make up for some lost education, but I don’t think I’ll buy the idea that math is some how more profound and important than the liberal arts.

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