Tuesday, 1 May 2012


The subject of maths keeps cropping up just of late. Ollie's exceptional talent in this area has been recognised by the school. This has not come as a surprise to many who are aware of my own mathematical abilities, however here is something that may come as a surprise.

Midway through the first year of my A Levels, I was forced to abandon my maths A level and switch to another subject because I was rock bottom of the class and it was blatantly obvious to me, my classmates and my teacher that I was going to fail.

Like I say those of you who know me as constantly calculating the odds on everything and living my life by these percentages, this will come as a shock. So how did this happen? What brought about this state of affairs.

Well I was 17 - and drinking underage every lunchtime along with most of the other students in the long defunct "Duke Of York" across the car park from Oxpens. Not to mention pursuing my other favourite hobby of the time more or less 24/7 i.e. girls. However I can't blame these two factors - as I was performing perfectly well in my two other A level subjects - one of which itself involved a fair degree of mathematical analysis - Psychology, where it where it was all about the statistics. So I can't blame the booze and the women for this one - unlike various misadventures of later years.

No - to fully explore this we have to go right back to my early years at Primary school in the first instance. Now back in the mid 1970s the school environment was very different to how it is now. Particularly my school which was an open plan experimental school - fortunately I have managed to locate on the internet the Papers of George and Judith Baines - the headteachers of the school, which describe in detail the concept of the school, a link to the page is shown at the bottom of the article, but I am pasting the key paragraph into the blog here, which summarises the basic concept.

"In 1967 the new Eynsham school building opened and George and Judith began their teaching collaboration pioneering new teaching methods, including learning through the environment and project-based work, in an open-plan school. The building burned down in 1969 and the school was housed in temporary accommodation until it re-opened in 1970. It was initially a school for the age-range 5 to 9, extending to children up to 11 in the mid-1970s. The children followed a course of 'self-directed learning'. The building was not divided into classrooms, but into a number of specialst areas for different activities, e.g. 'Botany Bay' and 'Cookery Bay'. Each child had a 'Home Bay' where they gathered before morning assembly and at the end of each day and where an individual teacher was responsible. A system of vertical grouping was adopted for these groups. In the morning the children would launch straight into whatever task they wished, before the whole school gathered for morning assembly, and at the end of the day they would talk over their activities with their own teacher in their 'Home Bay'. For the rest of the day the children moved freely around the building depending upon what type of activity they wished to do and during this period they could ask for help from any teacher."

So how did this school benefit me? Well pretty well in the early years. I was very keen to learn, and very similar to how Ollie is today. You were meant to do at least "3 books a day" which meant we all had a book for each subject and were meant to hand them in with whatever we had done by the end of the day. Being ultra keen, I generally exceeded the expectations, particular in maths, where as with Ollie now, I excelled. 

I don't think the school was as beneficial for the slackers, it was very easy to skive off and do the bare minimum of work. There was very little discipline.

Anyway, in maths, there were a range of books designed for children up to the age of 11, the Alpha and Beta range - amazingly I have managed to find the Beta 1 book on Google and pasted it in for you - maybe if you are of a similar age to me, it will bring back some memories.

However I lapped up these books, racing through them, until at around the age of 7, I had got to the end of book Alpha 1 - the hardest in the range. And then - I just stopped. Where could I go next? I had no teachers as such, there were no books for the 11+ range, effectively my maths education stopped for 4 years.

Not that I was not active on my own front. I was obsessed with statistics, from writing down and keeping a record of the Top 40 every week, to making my own league tables to update on the wall with numbers and blu tac, and running elaborate leagues for all manner of weird things - snail racing and such like, together with odds and all the rest of it - my mind was certainly still active. But crucially I was not being taught.

Here is a bit of nostalgia if you
were at school in the 70s

So by the time I started secondary school, I suddenly found myself struggling, from breaking all records to down near the bottom of the class. And now there was a new problem.

I was finding that anything purely numerically based - percentages, fractions, sums, statistics were complete simplicity, I could instantly calculate any such things in my head without the need for a calculator. But now, more advanced concepts were coming in, that weren't purely statistical. Trigonometry posed some problems - I just don't have any spatial awareness skills at all. I could calculate angles and such like, but some of the more advanced concepts eluded me. It is the reason why to this day I am completely unable to solve shape based puzzles - such as the one below that are included in psychometric tests. I just lack the basic skill set to do it. Not sure what the criteria is for the question below but it's another google cut and paste,

What the bloody hell is going on here? Answers on a postcard please.
The other area of maths I struggled with even more was the dreaded calculus. Simultaneous equations and all that gubbins. I'm sorry but as soon as letters started being introduced instead of numbers I totally lost the plot.

What the f**k??? Now you've really lost me!
So - I did manage to pass my Maths O Level as my poor efforts in these areas were offset by strengths elsewhere but that was it for me after that. Psychology - all statistic based - so passed that OK, and then had a highly successful and long career, that lasted from leaving school until the kids came along nearly 20 years later analysing and presenting numbers, predominantly for Nielsen but for others too.

In my areas of strength, I am as strong as ever, which explains why I love mathematical based games where there is a large element of luck combined with a high level of mathematical skill. Get these two factors in the right mix and you have the perfect game for me. Something where I can put my mathematical skills to my advantage and win - a lot of the time - but crucially not all the time. I do like to be humbled occasionally, and it's all the more fun to be frustrated occasionally by a player on a lucky streak.

Here's a few games, some with the skill element, some with luck only, and my analysis.

Yahtzee - or Dice with Buddies as we call it now - love it. The mathematical brain is calculating throughout what the best move to make is, but despite all of this advantage, I can still be mullered if the dice don't co-operate and my opponents are on a roll. Have won many more games than I have lost but can lose to anyone on their day.

Fours desperately needed for the bonus - will the dice play ball?

Poker - something I should be very good at in theory, but frequently turned over by inferior hands. Not much you can do when you go all in with a pair of Aces and some muppet calls you with Queen - Jack and flukes a straight. Never quite managed to make poker pay for me.

Roulette - Einstein or Stephen Hawking themselves could not beat this game. No matter what anyone tells you it is 100% luck and despite the small take of the house, you will never win in the long term. Not a game for me, though I can't say I've never dabbled for entertainment. When I was in New Zealand I stayed in the hotel on top of the largest casino in the Southern Hemisphere.

Horse Racing - my favourite - the odds aren't set like on a roulette wheel, you are dealing with flesh, blood, opinions - while the odds may be against the average punter, there's value to be found.

Snakes and Ladders - another pure game of chance. You roll the dice and go where they tell you - there are  no choices.

Monopoly - a game where the skill element is perhaps underestimated. Certain properties are far better investments than others, and not necessarily the ones you might think. Plus the amount of houses/ hotels you buy and where you put them is absolutely crucial. I would say of all the games I play, monopoly is my best.

Scrabble/ Words with Friends. May appear to be predominantly a word game, but don't underestimate the mathematical element - the points scored by the different tiles and where you put them is crucial. I don't play Words With Friends any more on Facebook because it became blatantly obvious to me that people were cheating - there are sites on the internet where you just fill out the board with the words played so far, tell it what letters you got, and lo and behold, it shows you your best possible move. Hence all those people you play using words you've never heard of, conveniently placed across several other words for massive scores. Blatant cheating.

Blimey this is a long blog entry, but I have to finish now to collect Ollie from school. And on the subject of him, I am so pleased and impressed with the school who have picked up on his mathematical excellence and are going to nurture it - he has been coming out with some amazing things, he already has worked out the concept of pi and explained it to his teachers - this is a 4 year old remember. He has been doing some work alongside year 3 children apparently, and if we can get him to concentrate may be sitting some tests that the 7 year olds do.

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, please take a look at my books on Amazon (Paperback & Kindle), where you can read lots more of the same! Click here.

Before I go, here is the link to the article I quoted from about my Primary School.

Jason xx

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