There are lots of thing we as Americans do well. As inventors and entrepreneurs we have few peers: Apple was founded here, as was Dell and Amazon, Ford and Boeing, WalMart and Coke. Our institutions of higher learning are the envy of the world, attracting students from every country on the globe. And our entertainment industry, from music to movies to videogames, defines contemporary culture around the world.

Still, there are other areas where we could use some help. While our doctors and nurses are stellar, the system that supports them is in dire need of an overhaul. Our understanding and acceptance of other cultures is most definitely a work in progress. We have inventive chefs and cooks exploring new tastes and recipes, but there are just as many recipes for deep-fried Twinkies. And it’s hard to escape the fact that our political system currently is a bit on the sclerotic side. Yet to trot out the off-quoted Winston Churchill line, our version of democracy is the “worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.” Scant consolation as deadlock after deadlock means no progress on important issues, but compared to the many unpalatable alternatives it positively shines.

But in one particular area, there is little doubt about our abilities, or more correctly, lack thereof: math. Put simply, we suck at it.

One of the building blocks of knowledge, it’s hard to dispute how important it is to have this foundational skill. Like reading and writing, the ability to understand and manipulate numbers is essential. From the simplest tasks like understanding how much money is in your checkbook to the most complex of figuring out the orbits of satellites, it is as fundamental as language. While computers and calculators have made the raw number crunching part of the task almost effortless, understanding the concepts which make up the disciple, which leads to knowing which numbers to crunch, is still of paramount importance. And that is where we have some issues.

Perhaps the best example came in the 1980s, courtesy of the A&W restaurant chain. They were looking for a way to compete with McDonald’s and its flagship product, the Quarter Pounder. They considered several angles to get an edge: taste, packaging and presentation were just a few. But when they weighed all the options they decided the best thing to do was appeal to that most basic of consumer hot buttons, value. Or more specifically, more product for a similar price.

And so they launched the 1/3-pound burger. It couldn’t miss: bigger, juicer, more bang for your buck. Just one issue: they forgot to consider that when it comes to numbers, Americans are idiots. Focus groups showed that a large number of potential customers passed on the product for the simple reason that the Quarter Pounder has a denominator of 4, while the Third Pounder has a denominator of 3. Hence, went the logic of the “I still have checks so there must be money in my account” crowd, one-quarter pound of beef must be more than one-third of the same.

The company has spent the last 30-plus years grappling with this miscue, trying to figure out how to turn the page. And now they just might have an angle. On the theory that you can’t fix stupid, you can only work with it, they are releasing their newest product. While there certainly have been some tweaks to fine tune ingredients and packaging, the biggest change is in nomenclature. And so for a limited time, head to A&W and order their newest offering, the successor to the 1/3 pounder, the big, plump juicy 3/9-pound burger.

Savvy readers (or just those who got past middle school math) will note that there is no difference in size, save a new formulation of the same name. But based on logic of the prior attempt, the 3/9 just has to be bigger than the 1/4 version, because 9 is greater than 4. And here’s the best news. Word is that while supplies may be short, if they should run out of 3/9 burger, they are prepared with a backup plan: you can request the branch manager to make you a 2/6 burger. But when that runs out, you are out of luck, and it’s back to the 1/3 version.

And you wonder why Sputnik was first.

Marc Wollin of Bedford thinks he is pretty good at math. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at glancingaskance.blogspot.com, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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