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August 05, 2009


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Unfortunately not everyone is good at math at the higher levels required by some engineering careers. I think everyone should know some basic maths to get through life, though. Personally I do work in the computer engineering field, and the portion of math I do use belong to the logic section since programming requires that. My husband programs video games and he has had to use some college level maths such as linear algebra. My parents are accountants and the math they use everyday is fairly basic. So yes, math skills are very valuable, but unfortunately many people especially women are intimidated by it.

Any tips on how to improves one's math skills?

Unfortunately many science PhDs are struggling to make a living.

Actually, real math doesn't involve numbers. Once you get beyond high school math, you'll rarely encounter numbers other than 0, 1, or exponents. In my junior and senior-level math classes at college, you'd find no more numbers in the texts than you'd find in English classes. (I was a math major with a computer science minor.)

And, believe it or not, I ended up needing the theorem-proving and problem analysis skills I learned in college. My field, database engine design, is extremely "mathy".

FYI: "Carline" is a spambot post. They're getting quite clever...

Vishan --

Take a class?

Foobarista --

I saw that too. It's now deleted. Anything with a self-promoting link gets cut by me. :-)

Baglady- I have to disagree with the women intimidated by math part. There were tons of women in the math department as students and proffesors. The women tend to gravitate to the sciences, which are still math based, while the men will be more into the engineering.

I worked as a structural engineer my whole life, starting off in 1956 with a sliderule and ending up in 1992 writing software on the most powerful computer in the world, at that time it was the Cray XMP4. My highest qualification was a MS in engineering mechanics. Looking back it was a 4th. grade teacher that really sparked my interest in Math and what I really liked was that Math is such a Black or White science, there is no Gray. You either get the right answer or the wrong answer to any problem. I used to love it when I spotted the little trap that the teacher had put in a problem and that made it very satisfying to know that you didn't fall for it and get the wrong answer. Now I get my kicks solving "Extreme" puzzles in Sudoku.

One of my daughters was excellent in Math so as a good father I naturally steered her into engineering - to my surprise she flunked the very first engineering class which was Statics, the basis of simple mechanisms. She went on to take more advanced Math classes than me but changed her major to Business instead and did very well in that field until it was time to become a stay at home Mom.

While I was working I was kept far too busy to manage my personal finances, and relied on the advice of brokers. With them I had a few big winners but also had my share of big losers. Apart from several "Disasters de Jour" after a bad earnings report, one big loser that turned me off of stocks from that day on, was a company whose stock was suddenly delisted from the NYSE and went to zero, fortunately I only lost $6K but it taught me a valuable lesson. Fortunately my 401K was managed by a big company that didn't allow us to make any choices in our allocation. Later on they allowed two or three choices but you could only reallocate once/year. Fortunately, apart from Black Monday in 1987 the market was good most of the time and my 401K was very large by the time I retired in 1992.

After retirement I started researching the technical analysis of stocks and to my surprise found that the Math involved was a piece of cake compared with engineering. To make a long story short, I ended up creating a collection of powerful investment tools and after working very long hours, 7 days/week, for 2 years was able to market it to a large base of subscribers to a proprietary database of mutual funds. It so happened that I couldn't have picked a better time since I launched my software in 1994 and we had a fantastic market right up until the bubble broke in March 2000. The investment tools helped get me and many of my customers out a few days after the peak, preserving the majority of our gains. At the time we were all communicating with each other through another great Internet invention, the online Bulletin Board, which has now almost disappeared.

The very thing however that produced the big gains, i.e. The growth of the Internet, also had an unfortunate side effect for early Internet users. It levelled the playing field so that everyone started getting access to financial data and investment tools, right on their own computers. As more and more people connected to the Internet and started making their own decisions, the trends of sector funds started getting shorter and shorter, making it more and more difficult to trade them successfully. Remember the popularity of "Day Traders" back then when little day trading businesses starting opening up in small shopping centers all over the USA and people were quitting their jobs to become day traders. Now the smartest day traders of all have moved to places like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan where they run lucrative proprietary program trading systems using company supercomputers.

I used to wonder why the large aerospace company that I worked for, with its huge base of highly educated and talented people didn't use their talents and computers to trade the market rather than settle for government contracts with low and very controlled profit margins. Companies like Lockheed, Boeing, McDonnell, Douglas, and North American could have easily become leaders in the world of finance, but I'm sure glad they didn't.

Old Limey --

Wow, what a story. You sure seem to have a wealth of experience and knowledge. If you ever want to write a guest post here (or several), let me know and I'd be happy to oblige.

One of the reasons higher-level math is such a valuable skill is because, quite simply, it's good brain exercise. Foobarista mentioned developing problem-solving and theorem-proving skills, both of which are tremendously useful even if you're not doing actual math in your career.

I do have to voice one disagreement with Foobarista, though. Higher-level math may or may not contain numbers depending on which focus you take. My wife went in the "pure" direction for her masters, while I went in the "applied" direction. She rarely saw numbers other than 0, 1, pi, or e. I slogged through large numerical calculations by hand.

She's now a systems/software engineer for an aerospace company, and has found use for both parts of the math spectrum (which means she occasionally has to borrow my books or my expertise. The other day, she described the symptoms of a problem and I was able to immediately pinpoint the cause, saving her probably 2 weeks of research.)

You're exactly right. The main method used today worldwide in structural analysis was developed many years ago but it sat there unused for decades because it was totally impractical until the coming of the computer age and the ability to solve gigantic systems of equations - sliderules and pencil and paper just didn't cut it. Even the early computers with their magnetic tapes and punched cards weren't much help.
I took many Applied math courses and they all made good sense to me but I found Pure math to be very boring. A paper on a Pure math subject just as well be written in Mandarin, I wouldn't understand a word of it since the pure math people have their own language.
We need both types of mathematicians but being a hands on person that likes fixing things I never had any interest in Pure mathematics because I couldn't see the connection to designing engines, airplanes, rockets, or even common things like refrigerators and washing machines.

On the other hand, I hate the "physical world"; for me, well-done software - or any well-designed process - is like an elegant proof. I've always been a "process person", who's good at figuring out and "debugging" development and engineering processes when I wasn't doing software. I even helped my wife set up her processes to sell small businesses; she can move a deal through in half the time of most of her competitors since she has a formal process instead of flying by the seat of her pants.

I can happily write database engines that can run huge companies or keep track of food in fancy refrigerators, but I do hire people to change the oil. The physical world is annoying: you have to worry too much about the remorseless rules of thermodynamics (although this can happen in software too).

I just watched a youtube video that demonstrated Vedic multiplication, it is a fascinating method that I had never heard of. In Britain we were just taught to memorize our multiplication tables by endless repetition like a bunch of parrots when we were in the first grade. Another instrument I have seen demonstrated in Asia is the use of the Abacus - that's another mystery to me. When electronic calculators first appeared on the market I made a wonderful trade in a bazaar in Morocco - a new hand made, camel leather, suitcase for a very cheap used calculator. Calculators were very impressive to people in the 3rd world at that time.

I think Sanjay is a spambot post. If you're "real", Sanjay, I apologize in advance. Blog comment spambots have gotten extremely good at keyword matching lately.

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