Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Math In Real Life

Working on my cabled sweater last night, it occurred to me how easy and satisfying it has become to follow a knitting pattern. I am pretty sure I left grade school all but innumerate - mathematics was a dark and terrifying realm, and I had no idea how to make my way through it. Had I lost a digit, I'd have had to learn Base 9 counting. And I could barely manage Base 10 with my natural equipment ...

My teachers all told me I would appreciate my math skills later in life - assuming I ever attained any. I dismissed all their advice as educational cheerleading, meant to keep my energies going long enough to graduate. But they were right. I'm not sure any of the uses to which I have put these hard-earned skills were exactly what they had in mind, but they sure were right.

First was tips. I lived in Hollywood, and you had to know how to tip in that status-conscious town. With the laser glares of countless supercilious actor/waiters fixed on me, I learned to do decimal calculations.

Next came mileage. In my 20's and 30's, I lived in Los Angeles but worked historical recreation events in Marin County; I commuted 1,000 miles a weekend for most of every summer. During the long, long runs up and down I-5 through the San Joaquin valley, I learned to calculate MPG in my head. Sometimes it mattered - when you are scraping loose change out of the front seat upholstery for an extra gallon of gas, how far it will get you becomes amazingly interesting - but often it was just for something to do as the endless miles went by. That led to calculating variations dependent on weight, wind speed, and how many people were leaping around in the back of my truck and it all got very fascinating. I began to see mathematics as an art form in its own right.

I also ran a tavern at Renaissance Faires. So I learned to calculate the weight and volume of kegs of beer, how many pints you could get out of different sized kegs, how much foam was too much, how much an empty keg weighed as opposed to a full one and what that meant in numbers of tipsy men needed to transport it, how much various strangely shaped drinking vessels would hold ... no end of problems in volume calculation.

Now it's knitting. Gauge can be brute-force calculated by a tape measure, but for accuracy you really need to be able to manipulate stitch and row counts. How many yards of fingering yarn are you gonna need to complete a 56-inch tie in a colourway you'll never find again in your life so you better buy it all RIGHT NOW? What about that sweater you foolishly decided to knit out of three different weight yarns? Is that antique pattern really calculating width in inches, or some weird variant of the length of an acorn?

I'd have gone insane long ago if not for the lessons of the 4th grade. Thank you, Miss Weitzel and Mrs. Matthews. I am sure you never thought I'd ever get any of this, but I did. You were right and I was wrong. Your patience lives on in my knitting.

Can I offer you a hat?

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