Humor at #NCTMNOLA

Last Wednesday evening, Steven Strogatz delivered the opening session at the 2014 NCTM Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

His talk shared a title with his bestselling book, The Joy of x. During the talk, he described five keys in bringing math to the masses, including what worked — and what didn’t — when he wrote a 15-part series for the New York Times Opinionator blog. He identified the five elements as follows:

  1. Humor
  2. Empathy
  3. Relevance
  4. A-ha!
  5. Listen to Your Wife (Husband, Partner, etc.)

I was ecstatic to see humor at the top of his list. As an example of humorous mathematics, he played the now infamous Verizon .002 phone call.

As it turns out, the week was full of humor. (Who’da thunk, at a math conference?) Bill Amend, author of the comic strip Foxtrot, delivered the closing session at the conference. Earlier the same day, yours truly gave my soon-to-be-famous Punz and Puzzles talk to a standing-room-only crowd.

Following the conference, Jennifer Silverman tweeted the following:

@jsilvermath Tweet

@jsilvermath Tweet

The joke I actually told was:

Why is 6 afraid of 7?
Because 7 8 9.

Why don’t jokes work in base 8?
Because 7 10 11.

But who cares? If her son is laughing, I’m smiling!

After my session, I was accosted by an overly gregarious gentleman who had written a collection of math jokes on a yellow sheet of paper in red ink. While a queue of people who wanted me to sign their copies of Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks formed behind him, he proceeded to tell me ALL of the jokes that he had written. He shared one joke that I found funny:

Pythagorean Serum

Pythagorean serum

Though funny may not be the right word. Perhaps interesting is a better choice, because Pythagorean serum was the name we used for the concoction that was served at my book release party.

And while at the conference, I was told a joke that I think works better visually than verbally…

Absolut Value

Last but not least, I was sent the following image of Newton’s Cradle by Zachary Kanin with the suggestion that maybe I use it the next time I present:

Newtons Cradle Playground

April 16, 2014 at 10:38 pm Leave a comment

Improving a Math Game

One Less BoardIt was 7:02 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Alex ran into my bedroom and woke me from an incredible dream — I was speaking to Riemann, Newton, Pascal, and several other dead mathematicians, and they were just about to reveal an odd perfect number.

“Deedy!” he yelled — somehow daddy has been transformed to deedy in my house — and I sat bolt upright.

“What?” I asked, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.

“Do you know what 58 × 46 is?”

“I have no idea,” I told him. “What is it?”

“I don’t know, either,” he said. “But it was one of the questions Eli gave me on this morning’s math quiz.”

A few minutes later, he had the answer to that exercise and several others that appeared on the quiz that his brother had created for him.

This is what my twin six-year-olds do. They give each other math quizzes. With two-digit multiplication exercises and slightly more complex combinatorics problems (“How many two-digit numbers don’t have a 3 in them?”). For fun.

So when they recently brought home a math game from school called One Less — in which each player rolls a die and has to place a token on a number that is “one less” — my only thought was, “Really?”

Verbatim, here are the directions to the game:

Each player gets 10 counters. Players take turns rolling a die and placing a counter on a number that is one less than the number rolled. The game ends when one player has placed all 10 counters.

Upon reading the directions, I had one question: RUFKM?

Let’s review.

  1. Kids who perform multi-digit multiplication for fun are asked to do single-digit subtraction for homework.
  2. The game ends when one player uses all his counters. Mind you, no one actually wins — the game just ends.

Well, this will never do.

I opted not to send a note to the teacher about how they need to increase the rigor of their mathematics curriculum. Doing so would just make me that guy.

Instead, I decided to turn a bad game into a good game. So we modified the rules as follows:

On a turn, a player rolls a die and places a coin on a space with a value one less than the number rolled. Players alternate turns. A player earns a point each time she gets three of her coins in a row. Game ends when one player has used all 10 coins. The winner is the player with the most points.

This allowed for all kinds of interesting questions:

  • What’s the maximum possible score in a game?
  • What’s the best arrangement of numbers on the game board?
  • Will the first player always win?
  • How does the game change if points are awarded for two-in-a-row or four-in-a-row?
  • How does the game change if scoring gives 1 point for one-in-a-row, 3 points for two-in-a-row, 6 points for three-in-a-row, 10 points for four-in-a-row, and so on?
  • How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

We determined the answer to the first question (8 points), and we agreed that we didn’t much care to know the answer to the last question. It seems like the first player shouldn’t always win; but he did in all of the games that we played.

As for the best arrangement of the game board, I have no idea. But if you’d like to explore, several game boards are included in the PDF link below.

One Less Game Boards

What modifications have you made to games to improve them or to make them more mathematically robust?

April 15, 2014 at 8:16 pm Leave a comment

Math Symbols Crashing

To most of us, it’s just the at symbol. But to the Dutch, its an apestaart, or “monkey’s tail.”

At Symbol

That’s a much cooler name, and it’s the one I’ll be using from now on. (Apparently apeklootje is another alternative, but since “little monkey’s testicles” isn’t appropriate in all situations, I’ll stick with apestaart.)

A lot of the symbols we use in math and on the Internet have boring colloquial names: at symbol, plus sign, fraction bar. But all of those items have aliases that are not only more descriptive, but hipper, too.

I propose that we start using those pseudonyms. Think how much more colorful our conversations would be…

An Olympic announcer might declare:

What a magnificent lemniscate by Yevgeny Plushenko!

Though if it’s used in reference to winter sports, a better spelling might be lemniSKATE.

When checking your voice mail, you might be prompted as follows:

 After the tone, enter your passcode, followed by the octothorpe key.

Droid Pound SignOr you might have the following conversation with a friend:

What’s the URL of your favorite web site?


You might also use macron, caret, or many others — but I won’t, because I’m just not that creative.

What other symbols have cool names that ought to be used in regular conversation?

April 9, 2014 at 4:30 pm 2 comments

Math Pranks

Jeff Gordon recently pulled a prank on a blogger who claimed that one of Gordon’s previous pranks was fake. The video received 10 million views in its first two days, so it’s doubtful you haven’t seen it… but just in case (warning: PG-13)…

Now that’s a pretty good prank. Especially since it involves revenge.

But my favorite prank ever is a math prank. I don’t want to ruin it by telling you anything about it, so just watch…

That’s pretty good, no? Now be honest…

April Fools Day is just around the corner. Pretty cool that this year’s date is a palindrome in the U.S. (4/1/14) and a repeating number (1.4.14) in other countries. Here are a few more pranks to get you in the spirit.

In 1975, Martin Gardner published a Mathematical Games column with “Six Sensational Discoveries that Somehow or Another have Escaped Public Attention.” Among them was the claim that the following expression yields an integer value.

e^{\pi \sqrt{163}}

Not so much a prank as an optical illusion, the following image shows two tables that appear to be drastically different in size, yet both tabletops consist of the same parallelogram (one rotated 90° from the other). Cool, huh?

Parallelogram TablesAnd finally, here’s a number trick.

  1. Start with a three-digit number abc (|ac| > 1).
  2. Reverse the digits to form the three-digit number cba.
  3. Subtract the smaller from the larger.
  4. Now reverse the digits of the result.
  5. Add the numbers from Steps 3 and 4.
  6. Cube the result.
  7. Add 3,000,000.
  8. Add 40,000.
  9. Add 900.
  10. Use the following list to convert the digits of your answer into letters.
    0 – R
    1 – S
    2 – L
    3 – N
    4 – F
    5 – T
    6 – P
    7 – I
    8 – O
    9 – A


March 28, 2014 at 7:21 am 2 comments

Insanity, the Logic of a Mind Overtasked

I asked my friend what he knew.

I don’t know anything.

Who are you, the Barber of Seville? You know at least one thing, namely that you don’t know anything. A contradiction!

So he corrected himself.

I don’t know nothing.

Ha! If you don’t (-) know nothing (-), then you must know something (+). A double negative.

It was at that point that my friend stopped being my friend.

This is what logic will do to your social life.

Logic: a systematic method for getting the wrong conclusion, with confidence.

But it can also be useful for solving problems.

John had 50 candy bars, and he ate 45 of them. Now what does he have?

And we end this silliness with three pieces of advice from the king of bad logic, Yogi Berra.

  • Never answer an anonymous letter.
  • Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.
  • You better cut the pizza in four pieces. I’m not hungry enough to eat six.

Hope you enjoyed or did not enjoy this post (but not both).

March 26, 2014 at 4:07 pm Leave a comment

Big Math in Central Texas

Several weeks ago, I went to Waco, TX, to deliver the keynote session at the Central Texas Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference. But before we get into that, let’s start off with a little trivia about the Wacky City. Do you know…

What famous soft drink was invented by Dr. Charles Alderton at Waco’s Old Corner Drugstore in 1885?
Dr Pepper. (Note that there is no period after Dr in Dr Pepper. Why not? I have no idea.)

What university is currently located in Waco? BONUS: What university used to be located in Waco?
Baylor University; Texas Christian University.

What “wild and crazy” comedian was born in Waco?
Steve Martin.

After the presentation, I had the pleasure of meeting Ashleyanne Thornhill, who has a Pinterest page with over 300 math jokes. Definitely worth checking out.

My keynote presentation was Exploring Rich Problems with Technology and Online Resources. The following is one of the problems that I shared with the audience.

In the 2 × 3 multiplication table below, the numbers 2, 3, 5, 7, and 11 are used to replace the variables a, b, c, d, and e.

The six products are then found, and the sum of the products is calculated. What is the maximum possible sum of the six products?

The technology we used to explore that problem was Microsoft Excel. (You can see how we did it by visiting Multiplication Table at the MJ4MF website.) Not a new technology, to be sure, but an effective one.

As for new technology, I recommended three math apps that I think are worth knowing about:

The presentation went very well. For my efforts, I was given a Baylor Bears t-shirt, a BU hat, and I was named an “honorary bear.” Yee-haw!

What are some of your favorite technologies — old or new — for investigating mathematics?

I also presented a breakout session titled Punz and Puzzles. For those of you who weren’t able to join us in Waco but who will be attending the NCTM Annual Meeting, April 9‑12 in New Orleans, I’ll be giving a similar presentation titled Punz and Puzzles: Creating Environments Where Laughing and Learning Coexist, on Saturday, April 12, 11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. in Room 214 of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Hope to see you there!

March 25, 2014 at 11:24 pm 3 comments

It’s Not About the Standards

Dear Indiana,

It’s not about the standards.

I’m very glad that you have abandoned the Common Core, “designed [your] own standards” and, according to Gov. Mike Pence, “done it in a way where we drew on educators, we drew on citizens, we drew on parents.” This sounds familiar. Where have I heard such rhetoric before? Oh, that’s right… the NGA and CCSSO sang the praises of a similar process when the Common Core standards were developed.

And I love what you’ve done with your new standards! Look at this gem from the proposed Indiana standards for Grade 6:

Understand that positive and negative numbers are used together to describe quantities having opposite directions or values (e.g., temperature above/below zero, elevation above/below sea level, credits/debits, positive/negative electric charge); use positive and negative numbers to represent quantities in real-world contexts, explaining the meaning of 0 in each situation.

You radicals, you! What a deviation from the Common Core State Standards for Grade 6! To wit:

Understand that positive and negative numbers are used together to describe quantities having opposite directions or values (e.g., temperature above/below zero, elevation above/below sea level, credits/debits, positive/negative electric charge); use positive and negative numbers to represent quantities in real-world contexts, explaining the meaning of 0 in each situation.

How dare those pundits who called your new standards nothing more than a “warmed-over version” of the Common Core! I don’t think that’s true at all. Rather, I think they are better described as a “still-warm version,” since you didn’t let Common Core’s body get cold before pilfering verbiage.

But there are differences, to be sure. Like with ratios, where you ask students to know the three notations of a/b, a:b, and a to b. Well, bully for you! Chart your own course! Spread your wings!

Personally, I cannot wait for the new Indiana standards to be passed on April 28, and your school districts can once again adjust their curriculum, and teachers can change their lesson plans, in preparation for the new standards. Won’t that be fun, just two years after they started adjusting curriculum and changing lesson plans to prepare for Common Core? Perhaps they’ll get to do it again in 2017, when the political winds shift and his constituents decide that Governor Pence needs a different job.

Indiana - Uncommonly HighAnd by the way, Governor Pence, I’d like to commend your cheeky use of the phrase “uncommonly high” to describe the new Indiana state standards. Bravo! What better way to trumpet your DOE’s good work than to sound like a Keebler elf at a NORML rally?

I cannot wait until that becomes the new state motto and starts appearing on license plates.

But I digress, so let me return to my point.

It’s not about the standards.

It’s not about whether students solve quadratic equations by plugging numbers into the quadratic formula or by completing the square. It’s not about whether students should graph quadratic functions with a calculator or by hand. It’s not even about whether or not students should learn about quadratics.

It’s about effective teaching and student learning.

It’s about a common discussion regarding what needs to happen in math education.

It’s about teachers from Wisconsin and California and Vermont and Alabama engaged in dialogue as professionals, in a community where their opinions matter and they are not merely enacting a pacing guide created to fulfill state mandates.

When I travel to New Orleans in a few weeks for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Annual Meeting, there’ll be conversations between educators from different states. And sure, some of those conversations will be about effective strategies and exceptional classroom activities. But most of them will be comparing the classroom ramifications of political decisions.

  • Oh, you get to teach math on a block schedule? That’s what our teachers wanted, but our administrators wouldn’t go for it.
  • I would LOVE to have a SMART Board in my class. But our school board voted for new football uniforms instead of more technology.
  • Well, maybe you thought it was good, but our district doesn’t teach adding fractions until Grade 7, so I’m not sure anything covered in this workshop will be relevant to me.

Don’t get me wrong, Hoosiers. I’m not mad at the state of Indiana. Hell, I love auto racing, Larry Bird, and corn. Instead, I’m frustrated at the state of education. How did we let things come to this?


Ed U. Kader

March 25, 2014 at 1:59 am Leave a comment

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About MJ4MF

The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog is an online extension to the book Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. The blog contains jokes submitted by readers, new jokes discovered by the author, details about speaking appearances and workshops, and other random bits of information that might be interesting to the strange folks who like math jokes.

MJ4MF (offline version)

Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks is available from Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, NCTM, Robert D. Reed Publishers, and other purveyors of exceptional literature.


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