Jewish World Review August 26, 2003 / 28 Menachem-Av, 5763

David Grimes

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Consumer Reports

The algebra of love | I celebrated my mother's 77th birthday by taking her out to lunch last weekend.

During the meal, the conversation somehow got around to the schedule of classes my son is taking in his senior year of high school. (I blame this on the fact that the margaritas did not arrive soon enough.)

My mother was surprised to learn that my son did not have to take a math class during his senior year and wondered, for reasons that again aren't entirely clear, if he had ever taken trigonometry.

"By the way," she asked me, "what exactly is trigonometry?"

"Well, Mom," I said, clearing my throat, "it's like this. You've got your sine and you've got your cosine and if you mash them together in a certain way you can tell how tall a tree is without climbing it. That, of course, is the layman's explanation; I don't want to get too technical and give you a headache on your birthday."

"So what's algebra then?" she asked.

"Oh, that's something entirely different," I explained slowly in hopes that maybe the fire alarm would go off. "You see you've got your X's and your Y's and oh, what do you know? Here are our appetizers!"

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I share this story with you to illustrate several points:

1) You've got to be really cheap to take your mother to lunch instead of dinner for her 77th birthday.

2) Onion rings go surprisingly well with margaritas.

3) My explanation of trigonometry and algebra should tell you all you need to know about why I got into journalism.

4) "Sine" appears more often than you'd think in crossword puzzles.

But now I come to learn that there are useful applications for algebra other than keeping your kid's grade point average so low that you don't have to worry about sending him to an expensive college.

A mathematician says he can use algebra to predict with almost total accuracy which newlyweds will remain happily married.

Professor James Murray of the University of Washington, Seattle, says the two formulas he has devised are 94 percent accurate in predicting which couples will stay together. The experiment, conducted with the help of a psychologist, involves observing couples during a 15-minute conversation when they are newly married. The subjects of the conversation include sex, child rearing and money. Positive points are given to couples who listen and respond affectionately to one another and negative points are awarded if one of the newlyweds grinds a chunk of wedding cake into the other's face.

I'm just kidding about that last part (wedding cakes costing what they do, she would probably just dump the bowl of clam dip on his head). But the point is that by checking the newlyweds every two years for 10 years, Professor Murray and his algebra were able to predict almost perfectly which couples would remain married and which would divorce.

All of which just reaffirms that couples should come to an understanding about these and other important issues before their wedding reception is crashed by some brainiac with patches on his elbows and a calculator clipped to his belt.

Because you can promise to love, honor and obey all you want, but algebra never lies.

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JWR contributor David Grimes is a columnist for The Sarasota Herald Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


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