No. 482: "Quién No Pertenece?"

Testing your knowledge of what happened this week
Sept. 26 2000 3:00 AM

No. 482: "Quién No Pertenece?"

(Continued from Page 1)

Randy's Wrap-Up

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Say what you will about your precious base 10, the counting systems of ancient peoples were based on numbers from two to 60, so you can all put your gloves back on, or your shoes, or both if you are a talented counting monkey who is wearing shoes in some pathetic and misguided attempt to be accepted by humans, to whom you'll always be just a monkey no matter how well you count and ride around on that little bicycle. You're a monkey! Show some self-respect.

Where was I?

Binary systems, in which the counting goes "one, two, two and one, two twos, two and two and one," etc., are still used among the ethnologically oldest tribes of Australia, who apparently do not accept the American Express card, if I understand the ads on NBC's overproduced Olympic coverage. But hey, how about those anorexic gymnasts! What a plucky bunch of permanently prepubescent athletes they are!

There are tribes of Tierra del Fuego who use number systems in base three and four, confusing even themselves. The quinary scale is very old but is now used only by speakers of Saraveca, a South American Arawakan language, or perhaps by G.W. in calculating his goofy tax cuts, for all the sense I can make of them. And I doubt that he'd do well on the uneven parallel bars. (Nor will that monkey if it insists on wearing shoes.) Similarly, the pure base six scale seems to occur only sparsely in northwest Africa and is otherwise combined with the duodecimal, or base 12, system. (I can go on and on, all the way to base 60 and those coo-coo Babylonians, if my search engine doesn't overheat, or whatever it is that search engines do.)

Suffice it to say that eventually, base 10 dominated all other systems with no involvement from Bill Gates and no whining from the antitrust division of the Justice Department. Nevertheless, vestiges of other systems endure. Twelve is particularly durable—inches in a foot, months in a year, ounces in a pound (troy weight), gates to the city. Oh, what a beautiful city! Our watch faces are a constant reminder of the persistence of this number, and just how late we are filing our copy. And of course we see 12 in "dozen." A gross is a dozen dozen, perhaps because it would be really gross to eat a dozen dozen doughnuts, or whatever it is ancient American peoples used to eat—each other apparently, if you believe some of the catty stories about the Aztecs. People can say such mean things.

Nonetheless, 10 does enjoy a privileged position among number systems, no doubt because of the number of fingers found on human beings who are not shop teachers. We even see this in the names for our numbers. Eleven comes from Old English endleofan, meaning 10 and one left over; 12 from twelf, meaning "two left"; the endings -teen and -ty both refer to 10, of course, and not in some snide way. And 100 derives from a pre-Greek term meaning 10 times 10. And what about tent? Well, probably not. But still. A monkey gymnast—that would be something to see, wouldn't it?

Good and Good for You Answer

Judy Kelley, a kindergarten teacher at the Lilja school in Natick, Mass., said it about The Cheerios Play Book, a best seller that teaches kids to count using the popular commercial product.

The book is one of a new genre of snack-based books aimed at toddlers, including The Oreo Cookie Counting Book, Skittles Math Riddles, The Kellogg's Froot Loop Counting Fun Book, and the Mobil 30 Weight Oil Let's Get All Greasy and Buy a Lot of Fine Petroleum Products Book, except perhaps for that last one. The Cheerios book has sold 1.2 million copies. The M&M Brand Counting Book has also sold more than a million.

Many educators oppose this trend on both nutritional and marketing grounds. "I think it is such an abuse—manipulating your audience when they don't have the ability in any way to assess," Ann-Marie Mott of New York's Bank Street School for Children told the New York Times.

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