Thursday, February 5, 2009

Negative Numbers

Who out there can provide evidence to the contrary? I'd really like to see it.

My darling wife had reason to drop out of school after the third grade.
But since immigrating to the USA she's been demonstrating outstanding
determination and motivation to learn spoken English, writing, and arithmetic.
She is enrolled in our county adult education program receiving GED instruction. She is mastering fractions, decimals, word problems, our crazy system of weights
and measures, and simple geometry.

In helping her with her homework, I have reluctantly and gradually come to
the appalling conclusion that the public schools in this country no longer
teach numbers below zero, what they are and how to manipulate them. None
of the textbooks she has worked from have any mention of them.

I have perhaps jumped to the conclusion that the omission is not
accidental or isolated, but rather part of a systematic trend in my culture.
Mention has been made that the past president strongly preferred to be
surrounded with "yes" men while anyone in his administration who offered
alternative viewpoints came to depart prematurely. Mention has been made
of the strong bias of investment advisors towards the "buy" grade for
stocks while too-sparsely using "sell". When the music single "Don't
Worry. Be Happy" topped the charts I took that as satire but I have since
heard numbers of individuals enthusiastically recommend such a philosophy
and approach to life.

So now, here I am, an investor in the stock market, preparing my annual
tax forms and grumbling about the capital gains taxes that I am going to
have to pay, but realizing that not one investor out of a thousand is in
this boat with me. Apparently, investors were not taught negative numbers
in school. Apparently they were not aware that stock prices sometimes go down.
And they were not aware of the implications for the macro economy that the
housing bubble was setting up.

Three years ago I had the honor to speak with Michael Jones, founder and
CEO of KeyHole, then Google VP in charge of Google Earth when the search engine
giant bought it. One of my hobbies is automated nautical cartography. I
spoke to him admiring the wonderful tool his company has created. I respect
the man immensely, I have never heard any contemporary executive with
equivalent power and authority to speak so passionately and compassionately,
most especially for the highly-persecuted original settlers of the land of
Canaan, which usurpers continue to slaughter in the name of God.

I digress. I hope you all have had the opportunities to enjoy, and or
put to use, the Google Earth tools. Especially, I hope you have been able to
virtually "fly around" in their 3-D space. If you have, then perhaps you
have noticed how between 2/3 and 3/4 of the surface they represent has
an elevation of "0". Since I work with bathymetry data this is a concern.
The sea floor cannot be shown with their tools. A year later I raised the
issue again with Bent Hagemark, GE CTO. But yesterday, with great fanfare,
Google released a new version of the tool which includes "Google Oceans".
they have added nice relief shading showing major ocean bottom features.
But the elevation still reads "0" everywhere. The 3-D software still
doesn't work, as it does so well on most land features (excluding places
like Death Valley, which is also portrayed as "0").

But maybe their programmers were never taught negative numbers.
Maybe they really don't know how to instruct a computer how to deal
with them.

Please tell me that I am wrong.

Or, raise your voice in protest. Is it so difficult for people
to understand that denying negative information does not make it go away,
but it sure does make it more difficult to talk about and work with others
on solutions?

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