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The primary activities of algebra, both in this course and in applica-

tions used to solve real problems, involve working with functions and solving
equations. Whether finding an output value of a function or a solution to
an equation, you will often be asked to give an exact answer. We will start
by probing exactly (ha ha) what that means.

1 What is an exact answer?


In this class we will always work within the world of real numbers. Every real
number has a decimal form, but the decimal representations for many (in
fact most) real numbers go on forever. And most of these eternal decimals
do not even repeat any pattern of numbers in their digits. The only real
numbers whose decimals can stop (terminate) or repeat a pattern of digits
are rational numbersthose that can be written as fractions with integers in
the numerator and denominator. We will frequently work with real numbers,
such as and 2, that are not rational. (These are irrational numbers.)
Although putting into a calculator gives a decimal output (3.141592654 on
my calculator), this cannot be an exact decimal for because the decimal for
goes on forever!!. This decimal is only an approximation of , accurate to
nine places after the decimal point.
So while we can give an approximation

of an irrational number like 2 1.414213562, we cannot write 2 =
1.414213562 even though the calculator seems to be saying that. Remember,
the calculator is a finite machine. It cant go on for infinitely many decimal
places and has to stop somewhere. We cannot give an exact answer in
decimal form if the answer is irrational. The way to givean exact answer is
to leave the irrational part in its original form (like or 2), while of course
simplifying the rest of the expression as much as possible. This leads to our
next topic.

2 Simplifying

3 What is a function?
Think of a machine in a factory, where some raw material (such as metal)
is put in one end of the machine, and a product (like a car) comes out
at the other end. (Obviously this is a bit of an oversimplification of the
manufacturing process!) A function is like a machine. You put something
(usually a number) in, and something else (usually a number) comes out.
We can denote a function with any letter or symbol, but the most common

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letter used for a function is f . When we talk about a function f , f refers to
some process for taking a number (input) and converting it into the number
that comes out (the output). If we use 3 as the input, the process can be
diagrammed as

3 f f (3).

The notation f (3) is used to describe the number output when 3 is put
into the function f . We cant say what number f (3) is without knowing
more about what f does. We will study many types and specific examples
of functions f , but even if we understand f in a particular instance, it is
sometimes still convenient to leave the answer in a form like f (3). For
example, one type of function we will study is the log function. The number
log(3) is irrational, so its decimal representation goes on forever as described
above. While we can plug log(3) into our calculator to get an approximate
answer log(3) .4771212547, to keep the answer exact we must leave it
written log(3). So we will frequently deal with expressions that have function
values in them. Consider the expression

log(3)
.
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Can the threes be cancelled? No! But this sort of simplification is a
very common error, which likely stems from viewing log(3) as a product.
But the product of log and 3 would be written log 3 or, more likely, 3 log
to avoid confusion. Whenever you see a function f of any sort fol-
lowed immediately by something in parentheses, interpret it as
the output resulting from plugging whatever is inside the paren-
theses into the function! Furthermore, in this class we do not work with
functions themselves algebraically, but only with output values of functions
(even if the input is a generic value like x). So if in your computations a
lonely function with no input appears, regard it as a warning that youve
possibly cancelled something illegally.

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4 What does it mean to solve an equation for a
variable?

5 Calculator programs

6 Ten crucial skills in this course


We will do way more than ten things during the semester, but if you can
become proficient at these ten skills, you can consider yourself to have mas-
tered college algebra.

1. Add rational expressions

2. Evaluate a function at a value

3. Find the domain of a function

4. Find the zeros of a factorable polynomial

5. Find the inverse of a 1 1 function

6. Describe the geometric transformations of a functions graph corre-


sponding to an algebraic change to its formula (and vice-versa).

7. Find the equation of a line given two points on the line

8. Solve a quadratic equation by completing the square

9. Optimize a quantity that can be modeled by a quadratic function

10. Solve exponential and logarithmic equations