Stuff I learned about long division — today

As I write this, my wife is drilling my granddaughter on division, with flash cards. Being a being a benevolent sort of patriarch, I tried to change the subject by mentioning to my wife two things that I learned today about long division — two things that they didn’t teach us back when I had it in school, in the last century.

First, there’s that symbol itself — you know, the vertical line attached to the longer horizontal line overhead, which together form a sort of capital L that has been rotated 90 degrees clockwise. That is, I always thought it was a vertical line — a plain, straight line. That’s the way my teachers drew it, and that’s the way I always drew it, and they never marked me wrong.

Now, it turns out it’s really a close-parenthesis mark attached to a horizontal line. It’s curved. It’s more like a sideways cursive L than a Roman one. It’s that way on the flash cards, and it was that way on the Web when I looked it up, earlier today. It occurred to me that this was an innovation that adapted something we once did longhand to the keyboard, or something. But my wife says that’s the way they taught it in HER school. I remain doubtful.

But that’s not the main thing I learned today. The main thing I learned is that the thingie I just described has a name. Really. And it’s a really weird, counterintuitive name. It’s called a "tableau." I swear the thing did not have a name when I was in school. They taught us all those other names that I have never had any sort of use for, such as dividend, divisor and quotient. (I’ve always thought of math as something you do, not something you describe; such names still seem to me useless to anyone but a math teacher.)  Anyway, the thingie has a name, and it’s one I would never have guessed in a million years. I couldn’t even remember it from this afternoon, and had to go Google it to tell my wife. To me, a "tableau" is what you call the thing I was a part of when Mrs. Sarah Kinney, the Latin teacher in Bennettsville, made us dress up like the Roman gods and pose together on a stage. I was Mercury. (Back then, it was a "tableau." Young people today would call it "way gay.") We were so good at this that — I am not making this up — we won a prize for it at a state convention in Rock Hill.

My wife asked me how in the world such a thing would come up in the course of a working day. That’s where it got complicated. I explained that it was in a New Yorker article about N.Y Gov. Eliot Spitzer that I read today — someone had sent me an e-mail at work with the link, urging me to read it, and the article endeavored to explain the shape formed on a may by the more populated parts of the state, and said it was like "a mirror image of a long-division tableau." "And you just had to read that," my wife asked. "At work?"

I recognized this right away as a trick question. It was, of course, a sly reference to my attention deficit problems, and my notorious habit of pursuing any distraction that is waved in front of me. "Yes, I did," I said, fighting my corner. "Because… I blog. Because he’s been in the news…" finally, I got my stride, explaining that Spitzer has been very controversial lately because of his effort to give driver’s licenses to illegal aliens, which put him at the center of just about the hottest issue out there, and one which got Hillary Clinton in hot water, and…

Before I got all that out, she allowed as how she had heard something about that, and I quickly left the room before she asked any more questions, and she went back to drilling my poor granddaughter with those flash cards.

But why should I be defensive about this? This is how you learn stuff — by being intellectually curious. How else do you explain that I got a really high score on my math SAT? And I did it without knowing, until today, that that thingie is called a "tableau."

One thought on “Stuff I learned about long division — today

  1. Wally Altman

    While I always drew the straight vertical bar when I was in school and thereafter, I am pretty sure my textbooks depicted the tableau with the curve. However, I never learned the name until I took a graduate linear algebra course.

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