05 Feb. 2009
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Why Other Countries Beat Us in Mathematics

Up are thrown the hands as down go the scores.  Whenever some international body tests students from different countries, the United States scores near the bottom.  What can we do to assure our students don't become the tentacle flippers for Asia?  Will our chemists and engineers do ground breaking work?  Or will they have to fan out to the four winds and get jobs wiping Europe's computer screens and rinsing out Canada's science bottles?  Why are our scores so bad when education is a priority of administration after administration?  Why can't we, with the largest education budget on earth and enough experts who, if placed on oil tankers, could ward off the Somali pirates, find a way to motivate our youngsters to do better in fractions?

I Have the Answer!

As it turns out, I have the answer.  Not the experts, not the so-called educators.  Me.  (Or maybe I.  We're not all that literate, here, either.)  If I could take credit for this, perhaps my cabinet nomination would be reinstated by acclaim, ethics issues notwithstanding.  But I can'tI stole it from the Canadians.  And I know they're polite enough that I won't be called to account for my actions. 

Mathematical Motivation

Whenever Agilent, one of my favorite companies, runs a contest, I enter it.  I just entered one whose prize was a free oscilloscope, a strong motivator if there ever was one.  (If you don't understand this, just accept that "free" and "oscilloscope" resonate with me.)  Sometimes, when I enter a contest I even read the rules.  I did in this case and discovered that, as a United States citizen in an area that is not "void where prohibited by law," if I won the drawing I would receive the oscilloscope.  The free oscilloscope.  For the Great White North, it's another story!

Agilent Contest Rules Excerpt

If the selected entrant is a Canadian resident, that resident will be required to answer a mathematical skill-testing question, without assistance of any kind (whether mechanical or otherwise). In the event that a selected entrant cannot be reached within the timeframe noted above or a selected entrant's answer to the mathematical skill-testing questions is incorrect (applicable for only Canadian residents), the selected entrant will be disqualified and another entrant will be selected in the place of the disqualified entrant by random draw. The challenge winners will be among the remaining eligible entries received in the Sweepstakes time frame described above and the process above will be repeated.

Presumably Agilent is not discriminating of its own volition.  The canny canucks* must have a law preventing distribution of contest swag unless one can answer a mathematical question.  I suspect that they're not looking for an analytical algebraic topology of locally Euclidian metrization of infinitely differentiable Riemannian manifold** or even an explication of the Euler Identity.  But it possibly involves more than simple sums and certainly is an incentive to learn one's maths because, as it says above, you can't have assistance of any kind, either mechanical or otherwise.  No lifeline to get your free stuff.

I am unlikely to win the contest since I'm sure they'll have hundreds or even thousands of entrants.  I am unlikely even to find out who won, since they don't notify the losers.  But if I do find out, and if it's won by a Canadian I'll try to find out what the mathematical question was.  That's a triple conditional probability, by the way.

If I win, I will utter the correct expression, which I believe is "Woo hoo!" and will definitely publish a picture of the oscilloscope to make my thousand or so Canadian millireaders jealous.

*"Canuck" is, according to my sources, no more of a derogatory term than is "Yankee" to a citizen of the northern United States or is "nerd" to the writer of this blogitem.  And even if it is derogatory, I'm sure it will not be a Canadian who tells me so.  The same sources were ambivalent about its capitalization.

**If you know what this is and where I got it, you will know that plagiarism in this case is officially authorized.  Furthermore, I transcribed it myself from the original source, since no two references on the web seemed to agree.

Follow-up 13 January 2013

Woo hoo!  Although I did not win a free oscilloscope, I did win a very useful Agilent Power Analyzer in a different Agilent contest.

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