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May 6, 2010 9:23 AM   Subscribe

The Soroban is recognisable to most in the West as an Abacus. Despite the prevalence of electronic calculators, the Soroban is still incredibly popular in Japan, with parents oft paying for private tutors to teach their children. The remarkable phenomenon of Flash Anzan is observed after a few years of practice, when users no longer need a real Soroban and can work off an imaginary one.
posted by Biru (38 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Those obtaining at least a third-grade license are qualified to work in public corporations.

Um.

Doing what?
posted by gurple at 9:28 AM on May 6, 2010


Is there a website that explains how this is done in detail?
posted by empath at 9:33 AM on May 6, 2010


Oh great. A coworker and I just spent like 2 hours this morning figuring out how to optimally use a sliderule and now you spring this on me.
posted by DU at 9:34 AM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


DU: "Oh great. A coworker and I just spent like 2 hours this morning figuring out how to optimally use a sliderule and now you spring this on me."

As one of the very few nice things he ever did for me, my engineer stepdad taught me how to use a slide rule when I was in 7th grade. I asked about this funny-looking ruler laying on his drafting table, and we were off. By high school, even though the almighty TI-82 was standard issue, I still preferred the slide rule, and have one in my desk even today.

That video was great. I'd heard of anzan before, but that demonstration was very impressive. Smart kid!
posted by xedrik at 9:43 AM on May 6, 2010


Very impressive. But I think he's going to be really pissed at his parents when he learns about electronic calculators.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:50 AM on May 6, 2010


I have the same relationship with reverse polish notation.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:59 AM on May 6, 2010


Yes, I can do prefix notation without a real abacus too.
posted by DU at 10:00 AM on May 6, 2010


He needs to comb his hair.

And his math skills are pretty amazing too.
posted by lampshade at 10:01 AM on May 6, 2010


Those obtaining at least a third-grade license are qualified to work in public corporations.

There are 6 grades of training, 6th grade is the most novice, while 1st grade is the top trained. Therefore, 3rd grade is just past halfway on that mastery system.

It's not at all related to the "grades" as in what year you're in school.
posted by yeloson at 10:04 AM on May 6, 2010


It's not at all related to the "grades" as in what year you're in school.

Yeah, but what do they do in these corporations?

"We need to add these three numbers, multiply them by this number, and divide them by this number! And we need it RIGHT NOW!"

"Quick! Walk it down to Bob in Soroban!"
posted by gurple at 10:10 AM on May 6, 2010 [10 favorites]


I think the question is, the skill of being speedy at adding a column of numbers qualifies you for what job inside of a corporation? Even the lowest level of accountant in the US does more than that.
posted by DU at 10:11 AM on May 6, 2010


This looks like the program Austin was using in that video. I might just try this out...
posted by Taft at 10:17 AM on May 6, 2010


Those obtaining at least a third-grade license are qualified to work in public corporations.

Um.

Doing what?


A soroban can be used instead of a calculator for accounting and instead of a cash register for calculating a sale (sales tax, etc).

The number of people still using it for accounting in Japan is extremely small (approaching nil). For example, I can see it being used for accounting in a small mom and pop shop run by people in their sixties or seventies but not in your average business. You can buy a Windows 7 PC (with decent specs, monitor and keyboard) for about $700 and accounting software for several hundred or several thousand dollars so it makes no sense to use a soroban or a calculator for that matter.

The number of shops still using them to calculate sales is higher than the number using them for accounting. Again, the people I've seen using them were in their sixties or seventies and it's slowly (but surely) disappearing.

Modern reasons given for learning the soroban include improving mathematics skills, stimulating the right side of the brain and improving concentration.
posted by stringbean at 10:17 AM on May 6, 2010


Ah, that makes sense. Sales tax, in a mom&pop without an electronic cash register.

It was the word "corporation" in the Wikipedia entry that struck me as absurd.
posted by gurple at 10:19 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Very impressive. But I think he's going to be really pissed at his parents when he learns about electronic calculators.

It'll be off-set nicely when he can accurately figure out errors in receipts and other calculations provided by others, on the spot, without relying on anything but their mind.

Is there a website that explains how this is done in detail? This page makes it sound like all it takes is practice with an abacus (soroban or other form), and you can do it in your head. It looks like the program that kid is using is reinforcing mental arithmetic. Both links are to sections of the SorubanCymru site, which aims "to promote the use of the Soroban (Japanese abacus) in Wales, the rest of the UK, Ireland and the world."
posted by filthy light thief at 10:24 AM on May 6, 2010


It gets better. One Flash Anzan school has kids play word games while they're doing the addition. The word game is a first syllable/last syllable chaining challenge. The theory is that the additions are being done on one side of the brian, whilst the word games are being done on the other. The kids appear to enjoy it.

Alex Bellos has a new book coming out exploring this and other strange/beautiful mathematics topics: Here's looking at Euclid in the US (AKA Alex's Adventures in Numberland in the UK)
posted by bruceo at 10:28 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Taft: "This looks like the program Austin was using in that video. I might just try this out..."

There's also this site from the YT comments, which totally kicked my butt the few times I tried it.
posted by xedrik at 10:28 AM on May 6, 2010


He's doing something with the fingers of his right hand, but I can't tell if he's just fidgeting or tabulating. If he's tabulating, this is still impressive but less obviously "mental" arithmetic.
posted by not that girl at 10:53 AM on May 6, 2010


I think the question is, the skill of being speedy at adding a column of numbers qualifies you for what job inside of a corporation? Even the lowest level of accountant in the US does more than that.

That's probably related to the related to the difficulty in obtaining electronics in Japan.

More seriously though, I can easily imagine people who are much faster using these techniques than they would be with a calculator. Learning to be truly fast on a calculator takes time too. If you're calculating with numbers that aren't already in electronic form somehow, input is going to take time.

For complicated calculations RPN is much much faster than a normal calculator, which would add even more time to the learning process.
posted by kmz at 10:56 AM on May 6, 2010


There's an Arthur C. Clarke short story called "Into the Comet" in which the abacus figures prominently, but I can't find the text of it online. Great story, though.
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:29 AM on May 6, 2010


If he's tabulating, this is still impressive but less obviously "mental" arithmetic.

How so?
posted by phrontist at 11:51 AM on May 6, 2010


The number of people still using it for accounting in Japan is extremely small (approaching nil). For example, I can see it being used for accounting in a small mom and pop shop run by people in their sixties or seventies but not in your average business.

Ditto on this. In Japan about ten years ago, I walked into a teeny-tiny used book store. Behind the counter was a little old lady who must have been in her seventies, wearing traditional garb. She had an antique mechanical cash register-- the type with the big pop-up numbers-- and a soroban, which she used to total up my purchase.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:55 AM on May 6, 2010


He will make a good mentat. Those skills will come in handy after the coming Butlerian Jihad and thinking machines are outlawed.
posted by euphorb at 12:53 PM on May 6, 2010 [6 favorites]


I did soroban club in elementary school! I'm surprised you guys aren't more into it. It was really fun.
posted by mustard seeds at 12:57 PM on May 6, 2010


My dad brought me an abacus from his trip to China a few years ago. It comes with a short booklet on calculation methods, so I tried it out for a while. I found the mental flow achieved by doing the calculation mechanically combined with the physical action and the sound of the moving beads very satisfying.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:58 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


If he's tabulating, this is still impressive but less obviously "mental" arithmetic.

How so?


Well, if he's using his fingers in some way as a substitute for some operations performed on a physical abacus, then he's still using manipulatives. That's not the same as performing the operations purely in his head. The post says this is an example of someone working with an "imaginary" abacus, which implied to me that he was perhaps using an abacus visualized in his head (some friends of mine use a homeschool math curriculum that teaches this kind of technique). But if he's using his fingers as well, he's doing something other than that.
posted by not that girl at 1:13 PM on May 6, 2010


There's an Arthur C. Clarke short story called "Into the Comet" in which the abacus figures prominently, but I can't find the text of it online. Great story, though.

Is that the story where they end up using an abacus because they figured they could tabulate with it faster than the ships computer? If it is then thanks for reminding me and yes it is a great story.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:24 PM on May 6, 2010


That's it, P.o.B.
posted by Atom Eyes at 2:35 PM on May 6, 2010


The post says this is an example of someone working with an "imaginary" abacus, which implied to me that he was perhaps using an abacus visualized in his head

Note how the boy is holding his index finger and thumb in the video and compare it to the first picture in the Wiki link. The spindle shape of the beads and small space they have to move means that you can manipulate them by basically pushing down in the right spot, devoting one digit to both the top and bottom boards.

Now watch what the kid is doing in the video again. It looks like he is rolling a small marble around between his index finger and thumb as he adds, but he is moving the beads around on an imaginary abacus with the appearance of each number. I'm supposing that he is just mentally updating which column he is up to as he goes along.
posted by Avelwood at 5:00 PM on May 6, 2010


Yes, in lolcat terms it is not so much an "imaginary abacus" as an "invisible abacus". Essentially, they have internalized the abacus as a more efficient and flexible way of counting on their fingers (which boils down to the same thing -- finger positions and movements map to numbers -- only simpler).

My wife says that when she was in elementary school she was always jealous of the soroban kids when it was time for a math test they would just coast through, fingers twiddling at full speed.
posted by No-sword at 5:08 PM on May 6, 2010


Essentially, they have internalized the abacus as a more efficient and flexible way of counting on their fingers

I'm sure it differs from the way most kids count on their fingers though. The cognitive scientist in me is really interested in this as it applies to learning and memory. Abacus use seems to allow for the development of a mental tool set that recruits motor memory and proprioception to quickly and efficiently keep track of the numbers for simple math rather than using some sort of visual or abstract numerical representation.

Still, this seems to be largely mental as he doesn't look down at his fingers to "check" to his addition. I'm sure, with more practice doing this in his head, this whole process could shortcut into just imagining one's fingers moving, and finally into practiced, speedy mental math.
posted by Avelwood at 5:41 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


He will make a good mentat. Those skills will come in handy after the coming Butlerian Jihad and thinking machines are outlawed.

It is by will alone I set my soroban in motion. It is by the juice of Pocari Sweat that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, the stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my soroban in motion.
posted by armage at 6:17 PM on May 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Is that the story where they end up using an abacus because they figured they could tabulate with it faster than the ships computer?

Come on, seriously? I know we're always looking for ways that technology is bad and all, but you really think an abacus is going to beat a computer? The only way I can think of that that can happen is if it takes someone longer to enter the numbers they want into the computer, and in that case it just means they aren't as practiced with a 10-key as they are with the abacus, so it's not really a fair comparison. This is like when people point out that their $3000 analog hi-fi sounds better than their $30 digital CD player and insist that that proves that analog sound is better than digital.
posted by Xezlec at 10:06 PM on May 6, 2010


Well my description of the story wasn't spot on, but it is science fiction. So read the story, or at least check the plot summary before arguing about something you haven't read.
posted by P.o.B. at 10:53 PM on May 6, 2010


Come on, seriously? I know we're always looking for ways that technology is bad and all, but you really think an abacus is going to beat a computer?

So, I haven't read the story, but upon reading a synopsis of the story on wikipedia, it appears that the computer malfunctions and fails. The story is about solving a difficult problem with an abacus when nothing else is available, not about the abacus beating the machine under nominal conditions.

It's basically saying, "Yes, computers will take us to Jupiter. But, we could do it without them, if we really had to."
posted by Netzapper at 11:06 PM on May 6, 2010


Okay, requisite abacus story: Feynman vs. the Abacus.
posted by suedehead at 12:38 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Come on, seriously? I know we're always looking for ways that technology is bad and all, but you really think an abacus is going to beat a computer?

Looks like the story was published 14 years after this, so not entirely out there.
posted by Signy at 1:50 AM on May 7, 2010


Interesting post.

The number of people still using it for accounting in Japan is extremely small (approaching nil). For example, I can see it being used for accounting in a small mom and pop shop run by people in their sixties or seventies but not in your average business.

It's been about ten years for me too, but I found, somewhat infrequently, people using abacuses to add up purchases at post offices (that would account for the 'public corporations' thing) and train stations buying tickets. I imagine it's less common now, but it wasn't just a thing you'd see used by 80-year-olds.

This reminds of something else I saw on TV in Japan, even earlier than that. They had a competition between an electronic ticket validator (this was before the age of rfid, so they were magnetic tickets or something) and a human within a little hole punch thingy. They sent a rush of people toward each one, and the human one by a decent margin. Even though the machine was shooting tickets almost as fast as people could walk through, the human was just a little bit better. He'd just keep his hole punch clicking at a crazy rate, grab each ticket from the person as they approached, and slip the ticket through the punch as the person walked by with no loss of speed. It was pretty impressive. I don't think there are people at train stations that validate tickets anymore, though it was still fairly common in Tokyo at least 20 years ago, and is still maybe happening in the most rural of train stations.

I'm convinced that there was an incredible amount of human skill and tacit knowledge concentrated in the Japanese rail system in the past. Machines are doing a lot of the jobs now, but the accuracy, precision, and speed of it all was quite amazing.
posted by mariokrat at 9:12 AM on May 7, 2010


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