Friday, June 21, 2013

Real-world math, real-world thinking


Why I hate riddles, crossword puzzles, brain teasers, et alii


Y’all know this one.

As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives. Every wife had seven sacks. Every sack had seven cats. Every cat had seven kits. Kits, cats, sacks, wives, how many were going to St. Ives?

The creator of the riddle is doing a first-level misdirection to tease the audience into “incorrectly” answering by multiplying all those sevens. (And the “smartest” of them will remember to add in the husband. Can’t distract me with those sevens. Ha!) The answer he wants from you is One. Only *I* was going to St. Ives. And here, in a nutshell, is the seed of my discontent with the things I listed in my title.

Narrow thinking. The creator of the riddle is thinking only of how wonderfully tricky and brilliant he is. Nothing else matters. The purpose of the thing is to fool the reader. As the reader, I am offended by that. Ask me an honest question. Even a difficult and/or complex one. I’ll work on it. I’ll work hard and get back to you with my very best response. But if your purpose is simply to belittle me and dazzle me with your wit by fooling me, then fuck you.

Suppose this riddle were on a grade-school math quiz at the end of a session about multiplying by seven(s). I guarantee most of the students in the class would understand that the teacher expected them to do the 7X7Xetc. And they would ignore the “logic puzzle” aspect of just who might be going to St. Ives. In that case, the “correct” answer would be…

Well, waitaminit. How many whats were going to St. Ives. People? That’d produce one answer. All mature living things? That’s a different answer. All living things? Yet another (different!) answer. All the things? So, we definitely need to include the sacks. But how about the peoples’ clothes? We are not given any information about their apparel. Therefore, in that case, the problem is impossible to answer.

Let’s forget math class for a minute and go to logic class. While it’s true that the problem states directly that *I* was going to St. Ives, it does not say that the polyamorous feline transporters weren’t. I can easily imagine that *I*, travelling alone, would be more efficient (faster) than such an encumbered group and would, in the course of his journey, overtake that group as they, too, were heading to St. Ives.

But wait!

We are offered no (ZERO!) information about the rest of the St. Ives road. Are there other travelers ten yards from our scenario whom the author fails to mention? Travellers ten miles away? Travellers a hundred miles away? In either direction? What kind of road is it? Hiking trail? Secondary highway? West Texas Interstate with a speed limit of 85MPH? (Yes!) Were they all at a rest stop? At an off-ramp McDonalds? We need more data!

We are not given enough information to give a definitive answer to this “question” because it is so poorly constructed! Just like most school math tests. And it is purposefully designed to hoodwink the reader, just like all riddles, crossword clues, etc.

None of that for me, thanks.




  1. lynelle Wilcox6/21/2013 5:49 PM

    i thought i was alone in feeling this way about word puzzles! love this post. especially the parts about you being faster than the encumbered polyamorous feline transporters, and your "Yes!" about the 85MPH!

    (i appreciate speed.)

  2. Speed is fun! I loved it back in the old days when several Western states just enforced "prima facie" - no numerical value, just looking to see if you seemed in control. I remember doing 125ish and being passed by state troopers with their hemi interceptor motors. Zoom! Sometimes the "good old days" really were pretty good.

  3. Montana is like that - no posted speed at all. Pretty exciting!

    These "math" problems always threw me for a loop. My mind always veered off into the story of it. I would add to your list of possibilities:
    Was it a quiet Tuesday morning on a back country road or a Friday afternoon with everyone in town headed toward the beach?
    Was I such a wonderful fellow traveler that even when I met people going in the opposite direction, they turned to travel with me to St. Ives?
    And who WAS this man with 7 wives? Was that working out? And why did they do everything in 7s? Just by chance or some odd fascination with the number? And what happened when their cat had kittens - did they fix cats in those days? I don't think so. It will offset the seven thing they've got going on.
    And where is St. Ives? what's the weather like? How were they traveling?

    well, you get the gist. It doesn't work for my kind of brain. At all.

    And, you want to know something really weird? When I taught nursing school in North Carolina, they ENCOURAGED us to write tests in that kind of way. Something misleading to trip up the students. Or at least, that was the plan from the woman that was my mentor. Sheesh. Like it wasn't hard enough!