# Flash Anzan

November 2, 2012 4:39 AM Subscribe

The world record for Flash Anzan was broken this year at the 2012 All Japan Soroban [abacus] Championship. Competitors in Flash Anzan sum up 15 3-digit numbers that are displayed in turn within a set time. The record is now 1.70 seconds, which means that each number is displayed for just over 0.1s. Here is a video of a "slow" 1.85 seconds seconds where the numbers are barely readable.

Previously. Flash Anzan competitors are so good at the abacus that they don't need one any more - they hold a mental model of one in their heads.

Alex Bellos, author, journalist and mathematician, recently presented a programme on BBC Radio 4 called Land of the Rising Sums (link may only work in the UK), exploring the Japanese culture of numbers. For them, numbers are a fun after-school activity, like sport.

Previously. Flash Anzan competitors are so good at the abacus that they don't need one any more - they hold a mental model of one in their heads.

Alex Bellos, author, journalist and mathematician, recently presented a programme on BBC Radio 4 called Land of the Rising Sums (link may only work in the UK), exploring the Japanese culture of numbers. For them, numbers are a fun after-school activity, like sport.

The neat thing for me is that trained abacus work is faster than typing the numbers into a machine. It's an interesting relationship between user interface and input modalities.

With the abacus, data entry *is* the calculation, because after the first figure is entered subsequent figures never appear discretely.

posted by seanmpuckett at 5:04 AM on November 2, 2012

With the abacus, data entry *is* the calculation, because after the first figure is entered subsequent figures never appear discretely.

posted by seanmpuckett at 5:04 AM on November 2, 2012

Now I REALLY want to learn to do this. Where does one begin?

posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:10 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:10 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Things I would Google if I weren't running late this morning:

Is there any evidence that teaching children math on the abacus will improve their overall understanding of math?

Where can I get an abacus and instruction in using it?

posted by anotherpanacea at 5:18 AM on November 2, 2012

Is there any evidence that teaching children math on the abacus will improve their overall understanding of math?

Where can I get an abacus and instruction in using it?

posted by anotherpanacea at 5:18 AM on November 2, 2012

*Where can I get an abacus and instruction in using it?*

Do you live in a city where there's a Chinatown? I used to see them for sale in various shops in NYC's Chinatown. Dunno about instruction. Gotta be something online, right?

posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:26 AM on November 2, 2012

Also to anotherpanacea http://www.wikihow.com/Use-an-Abacus

posted by sfts2 at 5:53 AM on November 2, 2012

posted by sfts2 at 5:53 AM on November 2, 2012

Metafilter: an interesting relationship between user interface and input modalities.

posted by From Bklyn at 6:00 AM on November 2, 2012

posted by From Bklyn at 6:00 AM on November 2, 2012

*Is there any evidence that teaching children math on the abacus will improve their overall understanding of math?*

According to the radio programme, there doesn't seem to be much evidence, mainly because of too many confounding variables. The differences between Japanese and Western cultures are too numerous (

*Ha! Geddit?*) to be able to isolate the effect of the abacus.

Then there's the famous

The general idea with the abacus in Japan, though, is that it's a great aid at concentration, is fun and produces an interest in numbers, as opposed to in the West where it's perfectly normal for people to admit that they're rubbish at maths.

posted by milkb0at at 6:04 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's the Feynman versus the abacus salesman story. The salesman's understanding of numbers is based on visual associations and transformations. Feynman's is based on remembering multiplication tables, cube roots, and primes. They both have a good system for understanding numbers, but they're good at different things. A visual understanding is obviously much better at addition and subtraction, and a bit bitter for multiplication and division. More complex problems like cube roots are more easily solved with the type of understanding that Feynman had.

See also Ramanujan, who had an amazing intuitive understanding of numbers.

So if you want to be a physicist or mathematician, you'll want to get friendly with the integers and know all their cubes and squares. For the kind of day-to-day math that most people run across, abacus calculation is probably more useful. I might have to find me an abacus.

posted by echo target at 6:25 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

See also Ramanujan, who had an amazing intuitive understanding of numbers.

So if you want to be a physicist or mathematician, you'll want to get friendly with the integers and know all their cubes and squares. For the kind of day-to-day math that most people run across, abacus calculation is probably more useful. I might have to find me an abacus.

posted by echo target at 6:25 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

*Is there any evidence that teaching children math on the abacus will improve their overall understanding of math?*

Back in the late 50's, I was in a group of elementary students used as experimental subjects for a variety of educational projects. One of these projects was learning to use the soroban.

I never was very good at anything but addition on the thing, but it did give me a lasting physical reference for columnar calculations and different number bases.

posted by Enron Hubbard at 6:26 AM on November 2, 2012

I think a slide rule is more likely to give you a deep understanding of numbers, although of course it's possible to use it by rote too.

posted by miyabo at 6:36 AM on November 2, 2012

posted by miyabo at 6:36 AM on November 2, 2012

I learned how to use an abacus at a young age, right around the time I learned how to do algebra, and how an atom bomb works, because I had only the give-away volume A of a set of encyclopedias.

posted by rlk at 6:46 AM on November 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

posted by rlk at 6:46 AM on November 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

The abacus is still in use in Russia, too: The Schoty. My editorial fingers are itching to get the "a" out of the first sentence, "The Russian abacus is called a

posted by languagehat at 6:50 AM on November 2, 2012

*schoty*(pronounced SHAW-tee)," because счеты (or счёты) [*schoty*, actually pronounced s-CHO-tee] is a plural: счет is 'counting, calculation,' and счеты is its plural.posted by languagehat at 6:50 AM on November 2, 2012

It's about the time of year that I say to myself, "Man, I really want to learn how to use a soroban". Then I go to one of the sales websites, and see that I could buy a couple of working vintage HP calculators for the price of a basic soroban, and I'm all like, "Nah".

posted by scruss at 6:53 AM on November 2, 2012

posted by scruss at 6:53 AM on November 2, 2012

*I think a slide rule is more likely to give you a deep understanding of numbers, although of course it's possible to use it by rote too.*

It certainly gives you a deep understanding of logarithms, given that this is how the basic functions work. log(xy)=log(x)+log(y), and log(x/y)=log(x)-log(y). so by having logarithmic scales, they do multiplication by addition and division by subtraction.

But to really use a big multi-scale slipstick, you will learn numbers deeply. The A and B scales are double-decade, you use them with the CD scales to figure square and square roots. The K scale is a triple-decade scale, used with C and D for cubes and cube roots.

CI and DI are inverse scales for things like 1/x -- you work with CI as "x*y to produce 1/x*y.

And so forth...

posted by eriko at 7:48 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

What eriko said. I was given a late relative's Versalog slide rule - apparently the Cray of slide rules - and I can barely multiply on the thing.

posted by scruss at 8:43 AM on November 2, 2012

posted by scruss at 8:43 AM on November 2, 2012

This is cool! I have been collecting a few bits and pieces on this for a while. If you check this video, you can see the children are still performing the abacus actions by moving their fingers. I'm sure this aids their mental/cognitive performance.

I used to play flute and Irish whistle, and moving my fingers 'in the air' was a good way to practice, and I could hear the music in my head at the same time.

posted by carter at 8:44 AM on November 2, 2012

I used to play flute and Irish whistle, and moving my fingers 'in the air' was a good way to practice, and I could hear the music in my head at the same time.

posted by carter at 8:44 AM on November 2, 2012

At first scanning the post I thought that "Flash Anzan" was the name of a person, who had broken some record. I am so disappointed to find out that there is nobody out there with that name.

posted by benito.strauss at 8:56 AM on November 2, 2012

posted by benito.strauss at 8:56 AM on November 2, 2012

*The differences between Japanese and Western cultures are too numerous (Ha! Geddit?) to be able to isolate the effect of the abacus...The general idea with the abacus in Japan, though, is that it's a great aid at concentration, is fun and produces an interest in numbers, as opposed to in the West where it's perfectly normal for people to admit that they're rubbish at maths.*

Actually, Japanese culture traditionally has looked down upon mathematics as low class because it is only of use to merchants. The great educator Fukuzawa Yukichi recounts in his autobiography how, as a child in a samurai household, he was scolded for having interest in mathematics. It was with the late 19th-century opening of Japan to the West that science and mathematics become the object of serious study. Of course, there is also the higher visuospatial intelligence of northeast Asians.

One occasionally still see the soroban used in retail establishments, although this is generally at small shops that don't have a modern cash register. However, even at department stores, one can sometimes see one lying on the counter, although I have never seen one used in such an establishment.

Mrs. Tanizaki can use a mental soroban and our son starting learning to use one about a year ago. There is no shortage of Japanese-language children's materials for learning soroban, which are divided in several grade levels. I am not aware of any such English language books, however, for those who expressed an interest.

posted by Tanizaki at 10:08 AM on November 2, 2012

Also, you can't help but feel bad for the abacus guy in the Feynman story. He had no idea he stumbled into the equivalent of challenging Usain Bolt in a footrace.

posted by mhum at 10:35 AM on November 2, 2012

posted by mhum at 10:35 AM on November 2, 2012

So what is faster about the Soroban algorithm as compared to the add/carry method people get taught in school? Is there something about having a 'mental abacus' that just works better with the human brain?

I mean the fastest way (I find) to do that for many numbers is column by column, which wouldn't work for this particular competition, but if you're just trying to add some numbers...

posted by Zalzidrax at 10:51 AM on November 2, 2012

I mean the fastest way (I find) to do that for many numbers is column by column, which wouldn't work for this particular competition, but if you're just trying to add some numbers...

posted by Zalzidrax at 10:51 AM on November 2, 2012

I think the key is that you can accumulate as you see the numbers, and you do not have to be aware of intermediate results. With the written column method, you have to either memorize all the numbers and *then* add or tally each intermediate result.

I suppose you could do a similar (not quite as) fast accumulation using a variation of the column method by tallying the 3 digit numbers into 3 separate buckets for each column as you go, but you have to remember the 3 numbers and combine them at the end -- which is probably slower.

Instead, the mental abacus is the spatial configuration of a set of beads in columns -- the thing you are visualizing never grows and does not have to have a (conscious) numeric value. You can just keep applying manipulations based on the numbers you see and then you read the numbers off explicitly only when you're done.

posted by smidgen at 11:47 AM on November 2, 2012

I suppose you could do a similar (not quite as) fast accumulation using a variation of the column method by tallying the 3 digit numbers into 3 separate buckets for each column as you go, but you have to remember the 3 numbers and combine them at the end -- which is probably slower.

Instead, the mental abacus is the spatial configuration of a set of beads in columns -- the thing you are visualizing never grows and does not have to have a (conscious) numeric value. You can just keep applying manipulations based on the numbers you see and then you read the numbers off explicitly only when you're done.

posted by smidgen at 11:47 AM on November 2, 2012

From the article:

I vaguely recall reading something about how one disadvantage that E1L speakers have is that English names for the numbers are so long (multisyllabic, in cases), compared to other languages. However, since my life continues to lack the "now where did I read that?" button, I can't provide a citation.

posted by Lexica at 9:57 PM on November 3, 2012

In this clip the two girls are adding up 30 digits in 20 seconds while simultaneously playing "shiritori", a Japanese game in which you must say a word beginning with the last syllable of the previous word.*brain withers in shame, head shrinks like a carved apple head*

I vaguely recall reading something about how one disadvantage that E1L speakers have is that English names for the numbers are so long (multisyllabic, in cases), compared to other languages. However, since my life continues to lack the "now where did I read that?" button, I can't provide a citation.

posted by Lexica at 9:57 PM on November 3, 2012

Actually, it might have been European-language-speakers in general. I mean,

posted by Lexica at 9:58 PM on November 3, 2012

*quatre-vingt-dix-huit*? Yikes.posted by Lexica at 9:58 PM on November 3, 2012

put the caterpillar back on the abacus

take the monkey off the astrolabe

here's a bone from the tombs of the cappuchin monks

dip it in your coffee babe

Since I believe that I am the only person in history to ever put the word "abacus" into a song, I'm going to self-link to it here.

posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:15 PM on November 3, 2012

take the monkey off the astrolabe

here's a bone from the tombs of the cappuchin monks

dip it in your coffee babe

Since I believe that I am the only person in history to ever put the word "abacus" into a song, I'm going to self-link to it here.

posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:15 PM on November 3, 2012

"Abacus, haunting me;

Abacus, what you need..."

posted by languagehat at 8:02 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Abacus, what you need..."

posted by languagehat at 8:02 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

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posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:56 AM on November 2, 2012