Help Me Out? August 20, 2008

Help Me Out?

The first day of classes are on Monday and I’m trying to make a point for my high school math students. You can guess where I’m trying to go with it.

But I need a couple more examples of the following:

What are things that could possibly help us one day but very few people know how to use them?

So far, here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • Fire extinguisher
  • Car jack

Can you think of anything else?

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  • Ross

    Divot repair tool.

    On a more serious note, jumper cables.

  • Korinthian

    Breath mints.

  • Interesting correlation, I like it. The most obvious one I can think of is CPR.

    Another car one would be jumper cables.

  • Rex

    Critical Thinking Skills.

    The time we might have otherwise spent in church. … But, if you had critical thinking skills you would not have wasted your time in church, would you?

  • Ric

    Those wall-mount emergency defibrillators

    Parking brakes (proper use and when)

    Car jump-start emergency power thingies. 🙂

    Critical Thinking

  • Ric

    Wow, Rex! Jinx!

  • Our brains…hehehe.

    Seriously though:

    Road map (I’m amazed at how many people fail at basic navigation)
    CPR (unless you wanted actual physical items)

  • Margy

    I like to grill over charcoal, and so do a number of my neighbors, so I was very surprised to learn that nobody knew how to use a chimney starter to light charcoal. Using a chimney starter is much more environmentally friendly than using lighter fluid, and easier, too. You just stuff newspaper in the bottom part of the chimney, pile charcoal inside the top, and then light the newspaper. The coals are good to go in about 20-25 minutes, and the grilled food has no chemical aftertaste.

  • Instead of CPR you could mention a defibrillator and also jumper cables.

  • An automated external defibrillator Your school may have one of these hanging on a wall somewhere. It’s mandatory in a few states.

    Kitchen appliances. The next generation will survive solely on Hot Pockets and Hardee’s.

    A life jacket

    Any variety of IRS forms

  • Car jack? You mean very few people know how to put the jack under the car and turn the damn crank? I weep for humanity.

    (Fire extinguishers are pretty easy to use too, but are slightly more complicated than car jacks. So I still weep for humanity, but not quite as hard.)

  • My other ones were taken, so:

    Morse code

  • Democracy?

  • LogicRules

    How to make a budget.

  • Ah yes, the automated external defibrillator is a great suggestion. That’s something that everyone should know how to use, but very few people even know what it is.

    I don’t know about the rest of the country, but here in Minnesota, there are AEDs all over the damn place. It’s hard to find a publically-accessible building that doesn’t have at least one. One of our local Native American tribes started a big push a few years ago to donate AEDs to… well, just about everybody. I believe their current goal is to put one in every police car in the state.

  • Compass

    Needle & thread

    Flint & steel



  • llewelly

    Freedom of speech.

  • Speaking of a jack, the lever is a device that most people just don’t “get”. Once I had the revelation (years after my engineering degree), I find that I now use leverage effectively for any lifting or prying task. If I have a helper, I almost always have to explain it. Thus I consider it a tool most people never learn.

    I also find a lock pick occasionally useful. Or rather, usually an improvised pick when someone has lost the key. But that is probably a skill that parents wouldn’t appreciate.

    A hammer is another tool that many people think they know how to use. Once you really know the hammer, any dense mass with sufficient cohesion will impel, bend, break, or deform whatever is needed. But given the hundreds of hammer designs, there are distinct optimum uses for each.

    Citing Douglas Adams: A Towel. This tool is a blanket, a drying aid, a fire extinguisher, a fire starter, padding, a short rope, dust mask, sun shade, or note-taking material, as needed.

  • Korinthian

    Self defense and how to make popcorn without a microwave oven.

  • Reason.
    On a more serious note:

    -Jumper Cables
    -Conflict Resolution
    -Table Manners
    -Everything else high school kids are known for neglecting

  • ubi dubius

    A living will.
    A slide rule (hey, EMP could knock out computers and calculators).

  • Stephen

    Statistics. Many use them, few use them well.

  • CPR is already listed, but I might add Heimlich maneuver or more generally first aid (how to treat frost bite, serious cuts, etc). One of the useful things I learned in BoyScouts. Thinking of which, add starting a fire.

  • Math!

  • David

    Never mind kitchen appliances, how about plain old pots & pans?

  • David

    Hand tools

  • Jason

    Irons, that is, how to iron. Seriously.

  • Ubi Dubium

    Landing an airplane

  • How about CPR, first aid, Heimlich maneuver, morse code, sign language, how to shoot a gun, basic car repair, knots, a compass and/or telling direction by the stars, and survival techniques?

    That’s all that come to mind off the top of my head but I’m sure there are many more.

  • Tim Van Haitsma

    Lock picking.
    Jumper cables
    map and compass
    Basic understanding of Stats.

  • Colin M

    Probably controversial, but:


  • Birth control.

  • My other ones were taken, so:

    Morse code

    What do you need to use me for?

  • Becksi

    Fireman’s carry.

  • Undo

    Turn signals

    map was said before and agree

  • the Shaggy

    The Five-Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.

    A VCR.

  • A parachute

  • Kevin

    – how to read a manual
    – how to swim well
    – how to detect logical fallacies

  • Shane
  • J Myers

    Shane, that’s a spinning hook kick. Does look handy, though.

    My additions:

    – Turn signal
    – The passing lane
    – Home maintenance

  • I wonder how many people could tell time using a non-digital watch/clock. Or, if things got really bad, a sundial.

  • David D.G.

    * The “transfer call” function on my phone at work (or, for that matter, any of its myriad functions besides dialing out or answering the blasted thing).

    * French (or any other foreign language).

    * A parachute.

    ~David D.G.

  • I second basic statistics e.g. use salary or house price stats to illustrate the difference between Mean and Median.

    Refrigeration (incl. air conditioning, freezers)

    Solar cells.

  • stephanie

    CPR and the Heimlich maneuver.

  • Robin

    Simple machines, like pulleys and levers

    Pumps, this is a real problem with the up-and-coming heart surgeons


  • Lysistrata

    I would add
    The Dewey Decimal system
    and a basic library catalog.

  • A utili-knife, a wire stripper and a pipe cutter

    And to quote Monty Python:
    Simpsons individual stringettes. The NOW string

  • The Dewey Decimal System =)

  • A first aid kit.

    Rope. Seriously who knows how to tie more than a couple of knots?

    A steel. As in flint and steel.

    A steel. As in a metal thing to sharpen knives.

    The wheel.

  • Gabriel

    In no particular order:

    Table manners

    knife and fork




    the kitchen

    broom and dustpan

    mop and bucket

    vacume cleaner


    tooth brush and tooth paste

    how to wash your clothes in the bathtub because you are too broke to use the laundry mat

    conversation skills

  • Gullwatcher

    a tide table

  • HTML

    Zing! I bet you saw that one coming.

  • Gullwatcher

    It may not be the done thing to assign reading in math class, but “The Mysterious Island” by Jules Verne is about five men cast away on an uninhabited island with only one match, one grain of wheat, a broken dog collar, and two watches. With those items and various skills, they produce fire, pottery, bricks, iron, a telegraph, and a small ship. Maybe not a simple example, but a fun read and an example of how useful it can be to know things.

  • Gullwatcher

    Not a thing, but an example straight from the headlines – how to figure out what a loan will really cost you, so you don’t lose your house and everything else you own.

  • Polly

    Spanish – the real kind, not the crap they teach in school.

    guns – big, powerful guns

    condoms – big, powerf…no wait.

    alternative energy
    CPR/first aid / defibrillator

    well-regulated financial markets complete with segregation of services to avoid conflicts of interest

    Universal or near-universal health care with special emphasis on preventive care

    Retirement planning

    A viable space program not laden down by inefficiency

    A functioning government might come in handy someday. Perhaps we should keep the constitution around just in case one day the occupant of the White House decides to use it.

  • I second sign language, reading a map and a dictionary.

    Also, using a thesaurus and telling directions using the sun/star position.

    And for the record, of course Algebra (insert Trig, Calc, or Geometry) can be thought of in the same way!

    My students start Monday, too. 🙂 Good luck!

  • Hahaha! “Birth control”!

  • Andrew C.

    Record player.

  • MathMike

    Well most of the best have been taken, but how about:

    How to drive stick.

    How to sharpen a pencil with a knife.

    How to sharpen a knife.

    My students showed up this past Monday. Good thing I was already there.

  • how to swim.

    how to conserve warmth when stranded.

  • I’m going to say verb conjugations, particularly the very complicated ones like past perfect.

    I am only kidding. Sort of.

    I kept seeing defibrillators and jumper cables together. Any way you could interchange them?

  • I used to teach English.

  • Anne

    How to use a fishing line to catch a fish.

  • Jay

    psi, how to check tire pressure and how often

    how often to change the oil in your car and what kind of oil to use

    bring in your car owners manual and read it to them.

    using a spreadsheet application like Excel to determine compound interest, house payments, and all around money management!!!!!

  • This isn’t exactly an example of things that are really useful but nobody knows how to use, but I really like Polymathematics’ way of discussing rate problems:

    So anyway, I was telling my algebra students my well-rehearsed opinion about classic rate problems (like “a train leaves Chicago going 60 miles per hour…”). These are the kinds of problems that so many adults cite as evidence of how stupid high school math is, because they’re so useless. To the surprise of my students, I actually agree with that. So I tell them that I’ll give them a real problem that’s not stupid: “Design a new kind of airplane that won’t crash and kill everyone on board.” They become silent. “Too hard a problem?” They nod. “Well let’s start with something easier…a train leaves Chicago going 60 miles per hour….” That usually gets a laugh and a recognition that you have to start with easy mathematical modeling problems before you try the hard ones. And I proceed with an example. And about halfway through the example, one of my quieter and more talented students starts folding up a piece of paper. I let it go for a minute, but it soon becomes clear he’s folding a paper airplane. I get a little bit annoyed. “Are you folding a paper airplane?” And he comes back with “I’m designing a new kind of plane that won’t crash and kill people.”

  • I’m sure these have all been listed, but:

    – Jumper Cables
    – Dewey Decimal, or card catalog system (my favorite to use)
    – Microfiche/Microreels
    – How to start a fire without matches (it’s a pain in the ass!)
    – Just about any “old” technology, like typewriters, etc – I find it’s amazingly important to know how to use these things, as you never know when you may need to – plus, sometimes it’s fun to do it the “old fashioned” way.

  • Mark N

    A chainsaw.

    Come the zombie revolution and all that…

  • Steven

    I’ll try to add some math examples since I’ve often heard (and made) the complaint “I’ll never use that in real life”:
    – How to figure out what change is due to you (hint: use addition to reach the next dollar amount)
    – Geometry (my Dad uses it all the time for carpentry projects)
    – Metric system (the standard system of measurement for the world outside of the U.S.)
    As far as tools go, you can’t go too far wrong learning how to use:
    – an iron
    – a washer/dryer
    – hand tools (hammer, drill, screwdriver, etc.)
    – a needle and thread
    – a paintbrush
    – a level
    – flint and tinder (just kidding, what is this, the 12th century? )

  • A lot of good suggestions so I won’t repeat any of them (but, CPR, AED and Basic First Aid are SO IMPORTANT!!!).

    Teach the girls (I know, SEXIST) to say “NO” … or just teach them BIRTH CONTROL … in my area I see way too many “kids” pushing kids in strollers.

    And … that it’s OK to wait until you’re over 30 to get married … go out and have fun with your life when you’re in your 20’s … so many of my high school classmates went out and got married right after they graduated and had children right away … they’d look at me with envy at our reunions because they became “adults” too quickly.

  • LeAnn

    Jumper Cables
    A Compass (ha! in this age of GPS!)
    A map (again…in this age of GPS!)

  • Linux!
    -Foreign Languages.

  • Awesomesauce

    I’m going to have to third swimming.

    Though, the ability to think in the water would suffice. I always found it interesting that those who struggle the most to avoid drowning often are the ones who end up doing so.

    If you want to survive in the water, simply floating and breathing when you need to can keep you alive well beyond the amount of time it takes for something else to kill you (dehydration, hypothermia, Poseidon, etc.).

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