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Math: from hate to love

acoh3n profile image Arik Updated on ・4 min read

FractalsPhoto Credit: Garden
Programmers don't typically like to admit that they're bad at Math. Also, it doesn't help that most non-programmers have this idea that all programmers are some kind of Math geniuses. Unfortunately for me though, I wasn't blessed with any Math superpowers. Not by a long shot. In fact, I used to hate Math more than anything else in the world. Just the thought of going to Math class at junior high brings back memories that look something out of a Pink Floyd video.

By the time I got to high school I was convinced that Math was totally beyond me, that I lack that mysterious Math gene and that only people blessed with a mind for numbers can approach the subject and get good at it. I am simply not smart enough, I figured.

Around the same time though, my high school began teaching us Computer Science. Quickly, I found out that I liked it and was even pretty good at it. I was solving the algorithmic problems relatively easy while other classmates were struggling and I seemed to have a knack for it.

After graduating from high school, I was drafted to the army where I managed to get myself into a position of writing computer database applications. As I got better and better at it I wanted to know more. I wanted to truly understand how computers work down to the atoms, learn these more advanced algorithms I keep hearing about, understand how cryptography work, how computer animations are generated and so on. I was enthralled with the possibilities.

So I signed myself up for a remote university course to study for a Computer Science degree. After exactly 4 study periods of introductory Math course, my head was spinning so hard from Set Theory that I dropped out like my life dependent on it and never looked back. I felt like a complete failure and was ashamed to be so incompetent in Math.

After I finished the army, I managed to get a job as a computer programmer. Through diligent self-study of mostly books, I was able to advance my understanding of programming and software and built myself a rather successful career by average standards.

But while this was fine, and my work was paying the bills, my understanding of the subject was on the surface. I lacked the in-depth understanding required to truly master the subject. And I knew it. But each time I tried to penetrate the subject matter on a deeper level, I would inevitably hit a wall. Math seemed to be everywhere.

One day, while minding my own business, I ran into a TED talk given by a man named Sal Khan. Sal, previously a hedge fund analyst, quit his job in 2009 to work on a website he'd created to teach Math -- for free -- to anyone who wishes to learn the subject. He talked about the trouble in the Public School system: kids are moved through the curriculum in bulk, accumulating gaps in their knowledge due to a one-size-fits-all approach. So by the time they get to the more advanced subjects, their foundation was so shaky that they hit a wall they couldn't pass. He website, he said was solving this very problem.

His speech really resonated with me. But I was still skeptical. This sounds great in theory. But can I, me, personally, benefit from it? I didn't know yet.

I signed up and began watching videos and doing the exercises in order from the very beginning. I was literally doing arithmetic. The concepts were explained with crystal clarity and I could watch them again and again. I could also use the built-in exercises to practice these subjects and really drive the concepts home.

Next thing you know, I began tackling more and more advanced subjects which were previously completely occluded from my understanding. And was doing so with success and even ease, now that my mathematical foundation was rock solid.

Today, according to the Khan Academy website, I have mastered over 700 distinct skills. It truly recovered my Math education, my self-esteem and even ignited a real appreciation to the beauty of Mathematics. But maybe even more important than that, it unlocked many doors to understanding my profession and my real passion in life: computer programming.

P.S.

The image you see at the top of this post is a so-called Fractal. Fractals are patterns that are self-similar across different scales (Notice how the flower pattern repeats itself over and over as you zoom in).

They are created by repeating a simple mathematical process over and over rather than describing and encoding every detail. Fractal patterns are extremely familiar, since nature is full of fractals. For instance: trees, rivers, coastlines, mountains, clouds, seashells, hurricanes, etc.

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acoh3n profile

Arik

@acoh3n

Got into computers back in the 80s and became so in love with programming that I remember wondering as a kid (and still today, really) how come not everybody wants to be a programmer.

Discussion

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most non-programmers have this idea that all programmers are some kind of Math geniuses

I'm so guilty of this.

You have given me hope. I'm starting up the entire math track on Khan Academy. Thank you for sharing your journey!

 

This just made my day. Thank you!

 
 
 

Kudos for mentioning Khan Academy.
I finished a math specialised high school and decided to study Political Science at university. Part of the decision was based on my feeling that I was bad at math. I always got Cs and Ds.
The main reason for the bad grades though, was lack of practice and bad handwriting. I just could not be bothered to give up drinking and going out in high school to actually study math and the bad writing made it very difficult for me to follow my own logical process as I attempted to solve a problem.
While writing my masters in PolSci I decided I would learn to code as the positions available to me with the degree were not very interesting and did not pay well.
So I spent a year learning math on Khan Academy while also completing free intro coding classes on other sites. I was blown away by the academys system for learning.
Although the lectures are very good, what helped me the most were the autogenerated math problems. No matter how difficult the lesson, if I solved enough problems I would grasp the core concepts and even develop intuition.
Learning math also helped me become a better developer and raised my self-esteem greatly.

 

Exactly. I totally agree that learning math is no different than any other practice-requiring activity: Be it Martial arts, piano or surfing. You work on it hard enough and long enough and you'll get it. But you'll have to work on it using the right approach. I think Khan academy's mastery based approach is brilliant.

 
 

I always felt that math is one of the subject's where the teacher/methodology makes the biggest difference. As Kalid Azad of the wonderful Better Explained put it in his "Developing Your Intuition For Math" post:

We’re taught the modern, rigorous definition and not the insights that led up to it. We’re left with arcane formulas [...] but little understanding of what the idea is.

I could see this throughout my own math "career": as a kid, I absolutely loved it and generally was one of the best students in my class. Starting at age 12 I ended up with a string of horrible teachers, lost interest in the subject and barely managed to achieve passing grades for a few years in a row. Then I ended up with a great teacher again and he restored my interest in the subject and my faith in my mathematical abilities. He even made me sub some of his lessons later and it's really mostly due to him that I eventually signed up for an undergrad in mathematics. That I didn't finish it was nobody's fault but my own, turns out getting a math degree while working full-time as a developer is not so easy.

Here's a random collection of some math related links:

 

Love the quote you shared. It is so true. We were cheated of the best part in math. Anybody can memorize formulas. But where's the fun?!

 

This is astonishing!
I was able to see my recent thoughts in an elegantly written form in this article. I'm halfway to finishing the Algebra track on Khan Academy and, amazingly, Sal made me fall in love with math again. Your article is a pure proof that I'm on the right way.
Thank you for boosting my confidence exponentially!

 

This is so cool. Thank you. And I totally agree. I'm a convert too. These days I find myself browsing on the Amazon math section, looking for math books for recreational purposes! 5 years ago you couldn't pay me to come near one of these books.

 

Great post! Actually, I used to be pretty good at math. Maybe I had good teachers and maybe I had a little bit of knack for it. I could even do some tricky calculus stuff, but after 15 years of not using it, I can barely remember how to do simple algebra! I'm now teaching myself to program and realize that I definitely need to brush up on my math, but had no idea where to start. Sounds like Khan Academy is perfect!

 

Awesome! I guess they call them exercises for a reason. Because when you don't do them you get out of shape :-) Your comment inspired me to keep my daily dose of exercises routine. Thanks!

 

Yeah, I really want to kick myself for not keeping it up! It's like learning a foreign language... don't use it and you'll just forget it all.

 

Thanks, Arik!
I'm in the middle of my Computer Engineering Bachelor degree but I finished the high school a long time ago. So, I'm struggling with math (especially Calculus) and physics. Computer science and programming courses going well because I worked as a programmer already, but the maths and physics...
I've enrolled Khan Academy and I hope they will help me out.

 

That's really awesome! Make sure you really grok Algebra I, Algebra II and precalc material or you will run into walls that are actually not with calc but with earlier material. Good luck!

 

Math is the secret recipe of the world.

 
 

i found we have many same in the early time, except i havnt keep on khan acadmy