I’m delighted to feature an excerpt from The Adventures of Ruby Pi and the Geometry Girls by Tom Durwood.
A DISRUPTION ON THE COUNTING FLOOR
The Great Famine remains a taboo in China,
where it is referred to euphemistically as
the ‘Three Years of Natural Disasters’ or the
‘Three Years of Difficulties.’
— Tani Branigan, The Guardian
Freckles, well-earned from working long days in the sun, sprinkled the bridge of the nose and spilled over onto the cheeks of the face of the farm girl, Yan Li.
A badge of honor in her home region, the freckles were looked on as a relic of the agrarian past in certain sectors of modern China. The New China. Industrial China.
“Don’t do this!” whispered Ming Jun, seated beside her. “The bridge bombing has everyone on edge. What if they –”
“Someone has to say something.”
Yan Li’s eyes were clear, her jaw firm, her expression determined. She straightened the barrette holding her hair back.
Yan Li stood up.
“Sit down!” hissed Ming Jun,
“These mathematics are wrong! All wrong!”
Yan Li announced this to the room full of working clerks and book-keeps on the expansive counting floor of Building Two.
Her voice was too loud to be ignored.
Faces turned towards her.
“It’s all bad,” she continued. “Completely phony. The assumptions are fabricated. You know this!”
The calm murmur of adding and multiplying, of calculations and quiet consultations, of pens scratching on paper, the soft clanking of typewriters in the half-walled stations which ringed the floor of low desks offices – all sounds on the counting floor subsided.
“A thousand times ridiculous is still ridiculous. I can’t be the only one who thinks so.”
Two of the red-kerchiefed floor proctors hustled towards Ya Li. After all, she was disrupting the entire society’s forward progress.
“Sit back down, farm girl,” commented one of her tallying peers. But the lone jibe froze in the air. None others joined.
“Look,” said Yan Li evenly. “If anyone believes these so-called forecasts we are producing … well then, their deaths will be on our heads, comrades. It will be our fault if we do not speak up”
By now, even the soft plucking of stringed instruments in the background had fallen silent.
“We-cannot-possibly-endorse-this-charade!” concluded Yan Li.
“It’s the millet,” called out a second fellow scribe, a boy near the middle. “The winter wheat numbers are higher –”
“A FACTOR of FOUR higher?” demanded Yan Li. “The families who sit and wait for those phantom grains will be sorely disappointed, my friend. Empty bowls! They will starve and it will be horrible — ”
“Her work has been strenuous, Shi’lang,” implored Ming Jun to the first proctor, “the hours long. Just let her sit back down.”
“All right,” said the proctor Shi’lang, a handsome older boy dressed in white with a red kerchief around his neck. “That’s quite enough!”
“Who will join me in a new and honest set of calculations?” demanded Yan Li.
A loud knock on the glass walls.
A trio of the skinny soldiers, buck-toothed boys in green suits, rifles slung over shoulders, had paused in their campus patrol. Were they needed, to restore order?
Shi’lang waved them away.
Shi’lang draped an arm around Yan Li’s shoulder and laughed in a most friendly fashion.
“Ah! Yes! Now I see the error you mention, Yan Li. I had noticed it, too. You are a prankster! Charming.” He chuckled.
A little bell was ringing. It emanated from the corner office, raised above the counting floor. The Supervisor’s office.
A second floor-proctor joined Shi’lang and together they ushered Yan Li off the floor.
“‘Charade,’” laughed handsome Shi’lang, shaking his head wryly.
The members of the counting floor disliked this show of force.
Rumblings started up in the back rows …
Across the big open room, another red-bandana youth clapped his hands.
“Back to work, please.”
The morning fruit and cheese platters were quickly circulated, an hour earlier than usual.
The soft plucking of lutes rose once again.
Gradually, unevenly, the Chairman’s work continued.
2. IN THE OFFICE OF THE SUPERVISOR
By the end of the first millennium A.D., China
possessed a sophistication in the technology
of traditional agriculture that has never been surpassed …
the basic contours of this spectacular agricultural system
were laid during the Classical period.
– Agriculture in Ancient China
The Chairman’s summer villa compound in Mei Ling is most pleasant.
Dappled sunlight graces the secluded retreat, a well-manicured place most conducive to quiet contemplation and deep thoughts. Burbling streams and winding paths run through the sylvan grounds of the lakeshore campus. Mountain goats roam the cliffs and munch on grass at the forested margins. Staircases and antique cable cars bring visitors down the sharp inclines leading to Lake Wuhan at the compound’s western edge. Deer stoop to drink from still ponds by Building Four.
Red drapes frame tableaus of blond furniture and upholstered chairs of the lobbies within the glass walls of Building Three. An assembly hall could be glimpsed beyond the plum carpeting.
Among the tall pine and bamboo trees, the young soldiers with their guard dogs walked the paths winding up to bulky Building One. A swimming pool was hidden behind its tinted windows. Building Two, where the agricultural forecasts in support of the coming Great Leap Forward – the bold initiative which would establish and a new China — were taking place, where Yan Li had created such a commotion, was lower and sleeker.
* * *
The star-splashed freckles sprinkled across Yan Li’s nose and cheeks stood out now. Her blood was rising, and the skin of her face was flushed with anger.
The Supervisor, Miss Wang Na, paced the striped rug of the corner office. She paused to look out over the clerks working on their calculations o forecast the coming harvests.
Yan Li stood, defiant. Her hands had been tied.
Cushions in primary colors decorated the white sofas in the glass-walled office. Ivory rugs offset a row of wood-paneled bookshelves behind the large desk.
“We have summoned the Director,” said Miss Wang Na.
“He left for Xinhua an hour ago, but we can get him back.”
She paced behind metal standing lamps.
“Summon Empress Lu Zhi and the Seven Hoardes of Han for all I care,” commented Yan Li.
“This is most serious,” said Shi’lang
Miss Wang Na paused to consider the lake.
The glass corner office was perched on and above sparkling blue Lake Wuhan’s shoreline. Splashing paddle-boats and brightly colored lanterns strung along the lakeside walkways gave no hint as to what might lay beneath the deep waters’ surface.
Miss Wang Na turned, cursing bitterly.
“First the bombing! Then the Yunhe rebels attack our supply lines. Now this! Treason from within!”
“You’re the traitor!” spat Yan Li. “You are complicit in what will be a famine of colossal proportions! Death by starvation. In the millions — ”
“Why are you trying to make me look bad, farm girl?” demanded Miss Wang Na.
“To save tens of thousands of lives,” answered Yan Li.
“The Director will be presenting our tables to the Bureau, in Beijing, in less than a week. If the net present values do not align — ”
“Oh, that part is easy enough,” refuted the girl. “The net present value of next year’s famine is ‘Famine.’ Also known as ‘Zero.’”
“Yes, well, your barn-yard stubbornness, your backward ways, your slavery to tradition, your LACK of VISION are exactly what the Chairman fears most. I was present during his address at the Beijing Palace, and he predicted that these epochal events woul — ”
The net present value of next year’s famine is ‘Famine.’ Also known as ‘Zero.’
“Setting bad mathematics in historical context doesn’t change anything,” said Yan Li.
“Reactionary.” Shi’lang shook his head. “Confucian.”
“’Confucian’? It’s not Confucian. The calculations need to be exact. Based on reality. It all must beintentional. Not some empty exercise. If the numbers are compromised even slightly, it’s all worthless. No forecast. How can you not see that?”
“Oh, I see,” said the Supervisor, Miss Wang Na.
“I see, all right.”
“What’s this? Eh?” asked the Supervisor sharply.
She pointed to the equation at the top of one of Yan Li’s pages.
“What is the meaning of this formula?”
Yield in t/ha = (220 × 24 × 3.4) / 10,000 = 1.79
“It’s not a formula,” answered Yan Li, shaking her head. “It’s an equation.
“It shows the crop yield in any given harvest. Every forecaster follows this same model.”
“And why is it incomplete?” demanded the Supervisor.
“It’s waiting for a proper numerator. What you gave me is garbage. Worse than garbage.”
Shi’lang moved as if to strike her. Miss Wang Na stepped between them.
“Let X equal X,” challenged Yan Li, stepping forward —
Here’s the blurb
Young adult fiction featuring gambling, bandits, swordplay, probability and Bayes’ Theorem. An English teacher hopes to engage students with colorful STEM adventures.
“In this outstanding collection, Tom addresses the chronic problem of our young women dropping out of STEM studies. His stories lend adventure to scientific thinking.”
(~ Tanzeela Siddique, Math Instructor)
Amazon UK: Amazon US: Amazon CA: Amazon AU:
Meet the author
Tom Durwood is a teacher, writer and editor with an interest in history. Tom most recently taught English Composition and Empire and Literature at Valley Forge Military College, where he won the Teacher of the Year Award five times. Tom has taught Public Speaking and Basic Communications as guest lecturer for the Naval Special Warfare Development Group at the Dam’s Neck Annex of the Naval War College.
Tom’s ebook Empire and Literature matches global works of film and fiction to specific quadrants of empire, finding surprising parallels. Literature, film, art and architecture are viewed against the rise and fall of empire. In a foreword to Empire and Literature, postcolonial scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty of the University of Chicago calls it “imaginative and innovative.” Prof. Chakrabarty writes that “Durwood has given us a thought-provoking introduction to the humanities.” His subsequent book “Kid Lit: An Introduction to Literary Criticism” has been well-reviewed. “My favorite nonfiction book of the year,” writes The Literary Apothecary (Goodreads).
Early reader response to Tom’s historical fiction adventures has been promising. “A true pleasure … the richness of the layers of Tom’s novel is compelling,” writes Fatima Sharrafedine in her foreword to “The Illustrated Boatman’s Daughter.” The Midwest Book Review calls that same adventure “uniformly gripping and educational … pairing action and adventure with social issues.” Adds Prairie Review, “A deeply intriguing, ambitious historical fiction series.”
Tom briefly ran his own children’s book imprint, Calico Books (Contemporary Books, Chicago). Tom’s newspaper column “Shelter” appeared in the North County Times for seven years. Tom earned a Masters in English Literature in San Diego, where he also served as Executive Director of San Diego Habitat for Humanity.
Two of Tom’s books, “Kid Lit” and “The Illustrated Boatman’s Daughter,” were selected “Best of the New” by Julie Sara Porter’s Bookworm Book Alert
Connect with Tom
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Thank you for hosting Tom Durwood today! xx
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