Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Spreadsheet Woman Saves The World (One Equation At A Time)

Unlike Christopher of The Curious Incident, I have not been good at math all my life. I found math challenging in school; I could not connect it to the world around me. In high school, I once camped out in the math department, staging a Ghandi-like one-person sit-in, until the department head agreed to transfer me out of calculus (since there was no chance I would ever pass calc, the implicit threat was that my protest could go on for decades) and into history of math (which is like math, but much more like history, since it didn’t trip me up with a bunch of numbers).

But then I grew up and entered the real world, where I did grownup things like wear suits  and carry business cards, and I discovered I had a superhero alter-ego: Spreadsheet Woman. Working for a bank, math now connected to the real world – put a dollar sign in front of a number, and suddenly, it made sense to me. It interested me. I wanted to know it better. I was surprised to discover I found dealing with numbers easier than dealing with people: numbers are simple and straightforward, they don’t have hidden motives to find and analyze. They don’t say one thing and do another, or ostracize you from their cliques, or drunk dial you at 2 am. I don’t need Dr. Phil or self-help books to deal with them - pop numbers in a spreadsheet and they do the same thing every time.

Recently, Rachel of Bookworm Wannabe put up a blog post titled, “Hello, I am Fail”. Rachel is, like me, trying to read 50 books in one year, and was overwhelmed trying to fit is all in alongside her student reading. I understand the sentiment – I knew when I began that it might be hard to find time for it all, forcing me to evaluate priorities, develop my time-management skills, etc.

That sounds a bit touchy-feely, and Spreadsheet Woman doesn’t do touchy-feely. Self-help books are kryptonite to her. She understands the equation at the heart of the challenge: 50 books is a number, a year is also a number, either of days or weeks.

50 books/365 days= 0.136 books per day
50 books/52 weeks=0.96 books per week

She can also spot the fatal flaw in the equation. Can you?

Hint 1: Gone With The Wind = 1037 pages = 1 book which does not equal Help! A Bear is Eating Me = 132 pages = 1 book.

Hint 2: 1 Week = 168 hours – 56 hours of sleep OR an acute case of insomnia – 40 hours of work OR 60 hours of work – a Saturday at the Zombie Walk OR a lazy Saturday reading in front of the fire = how much reading time?

Thus, there are two possible solutions to the mathematical problem involved in completing a reading challenge: Reduce the page count of the books chosen to fit into the amount of available time, or increase the amount of available time to accommodate the page count.

I suggested to Rachel that she consider reading some shorter books, since she can’t really reduce the amount of time she spends on school. She liked the plan and seems more upbeat now. I’m happy about that, because Spreadsheet Woman isn’t the sort of superhero people usually are excited to see, unless glazed-over eyes represent a previously unrecognized form of excitement.

Is it boorish to break down a literary challenge to something as unromantic as numbers of pages? It sounds like someone missed the point: this is about Literature, the creative expression of a voyage through the heights of human ideas, to the depths of human emotion.

Not really. The challenge starts with two numbers: 50 books, 52 weeks. But the numbers aren’t as definite as they first appear, they represent variable unknowns. The goal isn’t a number either – it’s something else, hopefully buried in the pages, or maybe it’s just the satisfaction of completion.


  1. I don't think it's boorish. If it works for you- great!
    (And I love spreadsheets too)

  2. Hurrah for Spreadsheet Woman!

    Rosie of BooksAndBakes

  3. Hmm, curious, curious. I'm a straight up math geek - always loved it, always will. But finances? I go all spacey and start pondering things like is that wall color more greenish-yellow or more yellowish-green? (I'm trying to do better, but it's slow going.) My wife, growing up, would have described herself as math-challenged, but like yourself has discovered a special late-in-life knack for spreadsheets (again, particularly when dollar signs are involved) and can now whip up a spreadsheet that puts me to shame. Is there some sort of personality type matrix that can explain this:?


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