Category Archives: operations

A minus times a minus is a plus -Are you sure you know why?

What exactly are negative numbers?
A reference , from Wikipedia:
In A.D. 1759, Francis Maseres, an English mathematician, wrote that negative numbers “darken the very whole doctrines of the equations and make dark of the things which are in their nature excessively obvious and simple”.
He came to the conclusion that negative numbers were nonsensical.[25]

A minus times a minus is a plus
Two minuses make a plus
Dividing by a negative, especially a negative fraction !!!!
(10 – 2) x (7 – 3) = 10 x 7 – 2 x 7 + 10 x -3 + 2 x 3, really? How do we know?
Or we use “the area model”, or some hand waving with the number line.

It’s time for some clear thinking about this stuff.

Mathematically speaking, the only place that requires troublesome calculations with negative numbers is in algebra, either in evaluation or in rearrangement, but what about the real world ?
Where in the real world does one encounter negative x negative ?
I found two situations, in electricity and in mechanics:

1: “volts x amps = watts”, as it it popularly remembered really means “voltage drop x current flowing = power”
It is sensible to choose a measurement system (scale) for each of these so that a current flowing from a higher to a lower potential point is treated as positive, as is the voltage drop.

Part of simple circuit A———–[resistors etc in here]————–B
Choosing point A, at potential a, as the reference, and point B, at potential b, as the “other” point, then the potential drop from A to B is a – b
If b<a then a current flows from A to B, and its value is positive, just as a – b is positive
If b>a then a current flows from B to A, and its value is negative, just as a – b is negative

In each case the formula for power, voltage drop x current flowing = power, must yield an unsigned number, as negative power is a nonsense. Power is an “amount”.
So when dealing with reality minus times minus is plus (in this case nosign at all).

The mechanics example is about the formula “force times distance = work done”
You can fill in the details.

Now let’s do multiplication on the number line, or to be more precise, two number lines:
Draw two number lines, different directions, starting together at the zero. The scales do not have to be the same.
To multiply 2 by three (3 times 2):
1: Draw a line from the 1 on line A to the 2 on line B
2: Draw a line from the 3 on line A parallel to the first line.
3: It meets line B at the point 6
4: Done: 3 times 2 is 6
numberlines mult pospos
Number line A holds the multipliers, number line B holds the numbers being multiplied.

To multiply a negative number by a positive number we need a pair of signed number lines, crossing at their zero points.

So to multiply -2 by 3 (3 times -2) we do the same as above, but the number being multiplied is now -2, so 1 on line A is joined to -2 on line B

numberlines mult posneg
The diagram below is for -2 times 3. Wow, it ends in the same place.
numberlines mult posneg

Finally, and you can see where this is going, we do -2 times -3.

Join the 1 on line A to the -3 on line B, and then the parallel to this line passing through the -2 on line A:

numberlines mult negneg

and as hoped for, this line passes through the point 6 on the number line B.

Does this “prove” the general case? Only in the proverbial sense. The reason is that we do not have a proper definition of signed numbers. (There is one).

Incidentally, the numbering on the scales above is very poor. The positive numbers are NOT NOT NOT the same things as the unsigned numbers 1, 1.986, 234.5 etc

Each of them should have a + in front, but mathematicians are Lazy. More on this another day.

Problem for you: Show that (a-b)(c-d) = ac – bc – ad + bd without using anything to do with “negative numbers”


Reference direction for current
Since the current in a wire or component can flow in either direction, when a variable I is defined to represent
that current, the direction representing positive current must be specified, usually by an arrow on the circuit
schematic diagram. This is called the reference direction of current I. If the current flows in the opposite
direction, the variable I has a negative value.

Yahoo Answers: Reference direction for potential difference
Best Answer: Potential difference can be negative. It depends on which direction you measure the voltage – e.g.
which way round you connect a voltmeter. (if this is the best answer, I hate to think of what the worst answer is)


Filed under algebra, arithmetic, definitions, education, geometrical, math, meaning, negative numbers, Number systems, operations, subtraction, teaching, Uncategorized

Gross misuse of + and – and x and the one that’s not on my keyboard

Arithmetic is the art of processing numbers.
In ordinary language these words are verbs which have a direct object and an indirect object.

“Add the OIL to the EGG YOLKS one drop at a time”.
“To find the net return subtract the COSTS from the GROSS INCOME”.

In math things have got confused.
We can say “add 3 to 4″or we can say “add 3 and 4”.
We can say “multiply 3 by 4” or we can say “multiply 3 and 4”.
At least we don’t have that choice with subtract or divide.

The direct + indirect form actually means something with the words used,
but when I see “add 3 and 4” my little brain says “add to what?”.

There are perfectly good ways of saying “add, or multiply, 3 and 4” which do not force meanings and usages onto words that never asked for them.
“Find the sum of 3 and 4” and “Find the product of 3 and 4” are using the correct mathematical words, which have moved on from “add” and “multiply”, and incorporate the two commutative laws.

If we were to view operations with numbers as actions, so that an operation such as “add” has a number attached to it, eg “add 7”, then meaningful arithmetical statements can be made, like

“start with 3 and then add 5 and then add 8 and then subtract 4 and then add 1”

which with the introduction of the symbols “+” and “-“, used as in the statement above allows the symbolic expression 3+5+8-4+1 to have a completely unambiguous meaning. It uses the “evaluate from left to right” convention of algebra, and does not rely on any notion of “binary operation” or “properties of operations”.

If we want to view “+” as a binary operation, with two inputs then, yes, we can ascribe meaning to “3+4”, but not in horrors such as the following (found in the CCSSM document):

To add 2 + 6 + 4, the second two numbers can be added to make a ten,
so 2 + 6 + 4 = 2 + 10 = 12. (Associative property of addition.)

If + is a binary operation, which are the two inputs for the first occurrence of + and which are the inputs for the second occurrence of + ?
The combination of symbols 2 + 6 + 4 has NO MEANING in the world of binary operations.

See A. N. Whitehead in “Introduction to Mathematics” 1911.
here are the relevant pages:
whitehead numbers 1
whitehead numbers 2a
whitehead numbers 2b
whitehead numbers 3a
whitehead numbers 3b

And here are two more delights from the CCSSM document
subtract 10 – 8
add 3/10 + 4/100 = 34/100

In addition I would happily replace the term “algebraic thinking” in grades 1-5 by”muddled thinking”.


Filed under arithmetic, big brother, Common Core, language in math, operations, subtraction, teaching

GEOSTRUCT, a program for investigative geometry

I have been developing this computer software / program / application for some years now, and it is now accessible as a web page, to run in your browser.

It provides basic geometric construction facilities, with lines, points and circles, from which endless possibilities follow.

Just try it out, it’s free.

Click on this or copy and paste for later :

.Here are some of the basic features, and examples of more advanced constructions, almost all based on straightedge and compass, from “make line pass through a point” to “intersection of two circles”, and dynamic constructions with rolling and rotating circles.

help pic 1
Two lines, with points placed on them
help pic 3
Three random lines with two points of intersection generated
help pic 6
Five free points, three generated circles and a center point
help pic 7
Three free points, connected as point pairs, medians generated
help pic 5
Two free circles and three free points, point pairs and centers generated
gif line and circle
GIF showing points of intersection of a line with a circle
hypocycloid locus
Construction for locus of hypocycloid
circle in a segment
GIF showing a dilation (stretch) in the horizontal direction
gif piston cylinder
Piston and flywheel
gif touching2circles
Construction for circle touching two circles
gif parabola
Construction for the locus of a parabola, focus-directrix definition.






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Filed under education, geometry, math, operations, teaching

Subtraction and the “standard” algorithm

CCSSM talks about “the standard algorithm” but doesn’t define it – Oh, how naughty, done on purpose I suspect, since there are varieties even of the  “American Standard Algorithm”. Besides, if it is not defined it cannot be tested (one hopes!). I checked some internet teaching stuff on it, and as presented it won’t work on for example 403 – 227 without modification.

Anyway, I was thinking about subtraction the other day (really, have you nothing better to think about?), and concluded that subtraction is easiest if the first number ends in all 9’s or the second number ends in all 0’s. So, fix it then, I thought, change the problem, and here are the results

.Two simple algorithms for subtraction

I am quite sure that some of you can extract the general rule in each case, and see that it works the same in all positions.

While I am going on about this I would like an answer to the following-

“If I understand subtraction, and can explain the ideas to another, and I learn the standard algorithm and how to apply it, and I have faith in it based on experience, WHY THE HELL DO I HAVE TO BE ABLE TO EXPLAIN IT?”

I guess this post counts as a rant!

Leave a comment

Filed under arithmetic, math, operations, subtraction, teaching

A fun math/computing problem

I found this on and adapted it a little.

The number 25 can be broken up in many ways, like 1+4+4+7+9

Let’s multiply the parts together,  getting 504 (or something near)

Problem 1: Find the break-up which gives the max product of the parts. 1+1+1+…+1 is not much use.

Problem 2: Find a rule for doing this for any whole number.

Problem 3: Put this rule in the form of a computer algorithm (pseudocode is OK)

Problem 4: Write the rule as a single calculation (formula)


Filed under algebra, math, operations

Egyptian fractions

I found this on Quora. What would the standard algorithm be, I wonder.
David JoyceDavid Joyce, Professor of Mathematics at Clark Uni… (more)

Suppose you have five loaves of bread and you want to divide them evenly among seven people.  You could cut the five loaves in thirds, then you’d have 15 thirds.  Give two of them to each of the seven people.  You’ll have one third of a loaf left.  Cut it into seven equal slices and give one to each person.

There may be other solutions.   a = b = 3, c = 21.   (Egyptian Fractions)



Filed under arithmetic, fractions, math, operations

Complex Numbers via Rigid Motions

Complex numbers via rigid motions
Just a bit mathematical !

I wrote this in response to a post by Michael Pershan:

The way I have presented it is showing how mathematicians think. Get an idea, try it out, if it appears to work then attempt to produce a logical and mathematically sound derivation.
(This last part I have not included)
The idea is that wherever you have operations on things, and one operation can be followed by another of the same type, then you can consider the combinations of the operations separately from the things being operated on. The result is a new type of algebra, in this case the algebra of rotations.
Read on . . .

Rotations around the origin.
angle 180 deg or pi
Y = -y, and X = -x —> coordinate transformation
so (1,0) goes to (-1,0) and (-1,0) goes to (1,0)
Let us call this transformation H (for a half turn)

angle 90 deg or pi/2
Y = x, and X = -y
so (1,0) goes to (0,1) and (-1,0) goes to (0,-1)
and (0,1) goes to (-1,0) and (0,-1) goes to (1,0)
Let us call this transformation Q (for a quarter turn)

Then H(x,y) = (-x,-y)
and Q(x,y) = (-y,x)

Applying H twice we have H(H(x,y)) = (x,y) and if we are bold we can write HH(x,y) = (x,y)
and then HH = I, where I is the identity or do nothing transformation.
In the same way we find QQ = H

Now I is like multiplying the coodinates by 1
and H is like multiplying the coordinates by -1
This is not too outrageous, as a dilation can be seen as a multiplication of the coordinates by a number <> 1

So, continuing into uncharted territory,
we have H squared = 1 (fits with (-1)*(-1) = 1
and Q squared = -1 (fits with QQ = H, at least)

So what is Q ?
Let us suppose that it is some sort of a number, definitely not a normal one,
and let its value be called k.
What we can be fairly sure of is that k does not multiply each of the coordinates.
This appears to be meaningful only for the normal numbers.

Now the “number” k describes a rotation of 90, so we would expect that the square root of k to describe a rotation of 45

At this point it helps if the reader is familiar with extending the rational numbers by the introduction of the square root of 2 (a surd, although this jargon seems to have disappeared).

Let us assume that sqrt(k) is a simple combination of a normal number and a multiple of k:
sqrt(k) = a + bk
Then k = sqr(a) + sqr(b)*sqr(k) + 2abk, and sqr(k) = -1
which gives k = sqr(a)-sqr(b) + 2abk and then (2ab-1)k = sqr(a) – sqr(b)

From this, since k is not a normal number, 2ab = 1 and sqr(a) = sqr(b)
which gives a = b and then a = b = 1/root(2)

Now we have a “number” representing a 45 degree rotation. namely
(1/root(2)*(1 + k)

If we plot this and the other rotation numbers as points on a coordinate axis grid with ordinary numbers horizontally and k numbers vertically we see that all the points are on the unit circle, at positions corresponding to the rotation angles they describe.

OMG there must be something in this ! ! !

The continuation is left to the reader (as in some Victorian novels)

ps. root() and sqrt() are square root functions, and sqr() is the squaring function .

pps. Diagrams may be drawn at your leisure !


Filed under abstract, algebra, education, geometry, operations, teaching

Another Common Core Math Horror

I thought I had found them all, but NO.

Subtraction. Read this
Operations and Algebraic Thinking
• Understand addition as putting together and adding to, and understand subtraction as taking apart and taking from.
What has subtraction got to do with taking apart ???
(The examples are all of the form 9 = 3 + 6 and so on).

Also there is NO mention at all of subtraction as a way of finding the difference between two numbers, or of finding the larger of two numbers (anywhere).

While I am in critical mode I offer two more, less awful, horrors from Grade 1:

“To add 2 + 6 + 4,…”  and  “For example, subtract 10 – 8″.

The poor symbols are clearly in great pain at this point. Just read aloud exactly what is written…..


Filed under algebra, arithmetic, language in math, operations, teaching

Commutative, distributive, illustrative-ly

Here they all are, apart from associative, as it belongs to algebra.

gif commutative add

gif commutative mult

gif distributive law


Filed under abstract, arithmetic, language in math, operations, teaching