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Anxieties - Essay from Newsletter 173

Coming up with things to worry about

A proof

I was talking to a friend yesterday and remembering the early days of calculators in a math class.

Some teachers embraced them. Some teachers were awed by the power of some of the early programmable calculators. But many teachers gave us that lecture.

There was the lecture about how we still needed to learn how to do the basic calculations because what if we were on a desert island and our batteries ran out.

I used to look at them and think, “you make us take a year of geometry to teach us the value of carefully constructed arguments and that’s the best you can come up with.”

It is unlikely that I’ll be on a desert island.

In the unlikely case that I am on a desert island, it’s unlikely that I would have packed my calculator.

In the really unlikely case that I’m on a desert island with my calculator, it is beyond imagination that my greatest concern will be that the batteries run out.



Anyway the calculator/battery argument lived on for years in and out of deserts in and out of classrooms.

When I was a math teacher I remember parents coming to me with that argument.

One parents’ night a brief argument broke out when one parent objected to calculator use in the classroom because of the hypothetical battery issue. Another parent turned around in their chair and said, “That’s just stupid. If my car battery dies I’m stuck too but that didn’t keep me from driving here tonight.”

I’m torn. When I was 14 we spent a year in England and all of our math calculations were done using log tables. It meant that I had to pay attention to place values as log tables don’t differentiate between 3, 30, 300, and so on.

On the other hand, there are things I can have my students investigate if they have access to a calculator that aren’t available if they don’t.

On the other hand, students believe the answers they get from their calculators. I think I’ve told you before about a calculus problem in which we’d ask for the slope of the tangent line.

Students would often give us the wrong answer because they keyed in the equation of the function incorrectly. They would look at a graph which was clearly curving up and give a negative number as the answer.

Having an answer on a calculator is compelling. It’s yet another reason I worry about how we will judge output we get from AI. We’ve seen how easily we accept the result of web searches.

But I digress.

My point is that I see a ton of advantages to using a calculator and I see a ton of risks and things to watch out for.

Nowhere on my list is the fear that the batteries will run out.

But what if they do

It turns out this question of “what if my batteries run out” is one that keeps many new car buyers from choosing electric.

The average American driver drives less than forty miles a day. I drive much less.

In a typical week I may drive between five and twenty miles on most days and perhaps an eighty mile roundtrip to visit my mother and sister on a Saturday. In the past I had jobs where I had to drive fifty or sixty miles a day - but for the most part I don’t venture far from home.

Before I drove electric, that meant that I would have to get gas every week or so.

For the past four years I plug the car in every day or so and let it charge overnight.

In that time there have been less than a dozen times where I was taking a long enough trip that I had to find a charger while on the road.

My current car gets around 250 miles on a full charge. The biggest problem with it is that the Chevy Bolt charges slower than most other models. This can add significant time to long trips.

That said, with all the things that can go wrong on a road trip, running out of electricity is not one that worries me.

In fact, I’ve been looking at replacing my current car with a smaller car that gets less range.

100 miles is more than I need on most days and I can rent a car or plan my stops accordingly for the occasional longer trip.


I recently drove to Indianapolis to teach a two-day class.

I planned out the trip and stopped roughly half way there in Columbus at a Get Go.

None of the chargers worked.

I looked at my app and decided I could make it to some chargers at a Walmart just outside of Dayton.

Sure enough, I pulled in with about thirty miles of range left.

Because it’s still early days of electric cars and it takes a while to recharge, drivers often wander over to say hello and ask about your car.

Everyone was nice and I exchanged some pleasantries with the other drivers.

But I was in the parking lot of a Walmart in southern Ohio.

And there was a billboard that told me that marriage is a holy union between one man and one woman.

When I was much younger the explanation of the billboard would have been something, something, The Bible.

While Kim and I were married we mostly heard how gay marriage would somehow be a threat to our marriage.

There were many things wonderful about our marriage and there were many things that were challenging and difficult. Same sex marriages never had any impact on our marriage.

I consider saying something to my fellow drivers but realize that I’m on a desert island without the batteries I needed to safely get away.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 173. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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