Posts tagged ‘puzzle’

Demitri Martin and Me

As I was watching If I by Demetri Martin, I realized something.

I love Demitri Martin, because I am Demetri Martin.

Not literally, of course. I didn’t inhabit his body and take over his soul. (Would if I could!) Nor is this blog a ruse that appears to be written by Patrick Vennebush when it is, in fact, written by Demitri Martin. I just mean that he and I are about as similar as two people can be without entering the world from the same womb. Check out this list:

Demitri Martin Patrick Vennebush
He’s weird. (In a good way.) I’m weird. (No disclaimer.)
He did Mensa puzzles as a kid. I did Mensa puzzles as a kid.
He uses convoluted mnemonics to remember numbers. I use convoluted mnemonics to remember numbers.
He uses drawings and visual aids during stand-up performances. (See below.) I use drawings and visual aids during math presentations. (See below.)
He was influenced by Steven Wright, Emo Philips, Eddie Izzard, and Mitch Hedberg. I watched every Steven Wright performance on cable television when I was a teenager; my favorite joke is from Emo Philips; I own every Eddie Izzard CD; and one of my great regrets is that I never saw Mitch Hedberg perform live.
He was slated to play Paul de Podesta in Moneyball but was replaced by Jonah Hill. I wasn’t in Moneyball, either.
He was born in a prime number year (1973). I was born in a prime number year (1971).
He won a Perrier Comedy Award. I sometimes drink Perrier while watching Comedy Central.
He once attended class wearing a gorilla suit. I had no fashion sense in college.
He is extremely allergic to nuts. I’m not allergic to them, but I really don’t like crazy people.


One of Demetri’s drawings:

Ants Bears People

One of my drawings:Celsius Benchmarks

Oh, sure, I could list hundreds of other similarities between Demitri and me, but I think the list above is enough to see that the coincidence is uncanny. I mean, we practically live parallel lives.

Demetri used to sneak Mensa puzzle books — not muscle mags or girlie mags — into school to read during class. One of the puzzles purportedly from his Mensa Presents Mighty Mindbusters book:

If a crab-and-a-half weigh a pound-and-a-half, but the half-crab weighs as much again as the whole crab, what do half the whole crab and the whole of the half-crab weigh?

He said that solving problems from those books was validating.

When I got one right, I’d be like, “Yes! I am smart! These other idiots don’t know how much the crabs weigh.” But I do. Because I just spent Saturday working it out.

I solved puzzles like this, too. I don’t know if they made me feel smart, but I enjoyed the way I felt when I figured out a particularly tough one.

From the way he describes it, such puzzles may have had the same effect on both of us.

Whatever the reason, I spent a lot of time as a kid doing these puzzle books. And it came to shape the way I see the world. So now, as an adult, I see the world in those terms. For example, to me a phone number is always a sentence or an equation. Like my friend Becky…

He goes on to say that he remembers Becky’s phone number using a convoluted, mathematical mnemonic:

Beckys Number

That is, he converts the first three digits into an expression that is equal to an expression formed by the last four digits. He concludes that it’s “much simpler,” but it’s unclear how.

Now that’s some crazy, messed-up sh*t.

And I’d probably think it even weirder… if I didn’t do it, too.

One night many years ago, my roommate Adam asked for the number of the local pizza shop. I replied, “33, 13, 203,” because that’s how I saw it. Adam looked at me like I was nuts, and he was probably onto something.

My friend AJ’s street address is 6236, which I remember as 62 = 36.

My street address growing up was 1331, which I associated with the third row of Pascal’s triangle. (It also happens to be 113, but I didn’t know that at the time.)

I chose the four digits of my PIN because… no, wait, that wouldn’t be prudent.

My co-worker Julia’s extension is 2691. I used to remember this as 2 + 6 = 9 – 1, until I recognized a more elegant geometric mnemonic: the sequence 2, 6, 9, 1 forms an isosceles trapezoid on my office phone’s keypad — or it would, were the buttons equally spaced.


I can’t explain why I do this. Perhaps, as Demetri says, it’s the influence of all those puzzle books. Or maybe it’s just that the mental conversion to an equation gives the number meaning, making it more memorable. Or perhaps it’s that I’m wired to see the world through a mathematical lens, despite not wearing glasses.

Larry McCleary, author of The Brain Trust Program, claims that numbers are difficult to remember because “most of us don’t have any emotional attachment to particular numbers.” Mr. McCleary, I’d like you to meet my friend Demetri…

Demitri and I are both into anagrams.

Even when I walk down the street, things look a little different. The signs… the letters dance around. It becomes a little puzzle for me. So, say MOBIL, the gas station — that becomes LIMBO. STARBUCKS becomes RACKS BUST. CAR PHONE WAREHOUSE… AH, ONE SOUR CRAP — WHEE!”

Yeah, I do that, too…


My first car was a CHEVROLET IMPALA, which transforms to COMPARATIVE HELL. Our neighbor’s son is CARSON, whom I jokingly call ACORNS. And I can’t see a STOP sign without also thinking of OPTS, POST, POTS, and TOPS.

If you’re reading this, you likely have some things in common with Demetri, too. What number mnemonics do you use, or what anagrams to do you see?

May 25, 2016 at 8:27 am Leave a comment


In case you missed it, the following mathy challenge was presented by Will Shortz as the NPR Sunday Puzzle on February 28:

Find two eight-letter terms from math that are anagrams of one another. One is a term from geometry; the other is from calculus. What are the two words?

Will ShortzThe irony of this puzzle (for me) appearing on that particular Sunday is that five days later, I delivered the keynote presentation for the Virginia Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual conference, and I had included the answer to this puzzle as one of my slides. I wasn’t trying to present an answer to the NPR Puzzle; I was merely showing the two words as an example of an anagram. The following week, Will Shortz presented the answer as part of the NPR Sunday Puzzle on March 6.

Slide from My Presentation
(aka, the answer)

What I particularly enjoyed about the March 6 segment was the on-air puzzle presented by Shortz. He’d give a category, and you’d then have to name something in the category starting with each of the letters W, I, N, D, and S.

I’ve always heard that good teachers borrow, great teachers steal. So I am going to blatantly pilfer Shortz’s idea, then give it a mathy twist.

I’ll give you a series of categories. For each one, name something in that category starting with each of the letters of M, A, T, and H. For instance, if the category were State Capitals, then you might answer Madison, Atlanta, Topeka, and Harrisburg. Any answer that works is fine. But for many of the categories, you’ll earn bonus points for mathy variations. For instance, if the bonus rule were “+1 for each state capital that has the same number of letters as its state,” then you’d get two points for Atlanta (Georgia) and Topeka (Kansas), but only one point for Madison (Wisconsin) and Harrisburg (Pennsylvania).

There are nine categories listed below, and the maximum possible score if all bonuses were earned would be 79 points. I’ve listed my best answers at the bottom of this post, which yielded a score of 62 points. Can you beat it? Post your score in the comments.

Want to play this game with friends or students.
Download the PDF version.


Movie Titles
(+1 for a math movie)
M _____
A _____
T _____
H _____

Historical Figures
(+1 if the person is a mathematician or scientist)
M _____
A _____
T _____
H _____

(+1 if the game is mathematical)
M _____
A _____
T _____
H _____

School Subjects
(+1 for mathematical subjects)
M _____
A _____
T _____
H _____

Words with One-Word Anagrams
(+1 if it’s a math term)
M _____
A _____
T _____
H _____

Words Containing the Letter “Q”
(+1 if it’s a math term)
M _____
A _____
T _____
H _____

Math Terms
(+3 if all four terms are related, loosely defined as “could be found in the same chapter of a math book”)
M _____
A _____
T _____
H _____

Words Containing the Letters M, A, T, and H
(+1 if the letters appear in order, though not necessarily consecutively; +2 if consecutive)
M _____
A _____
T _____
H _____

Words with a Single-Digit Number Word Inside Them
(such as asinine, but -1 if the number word is actually used numerically, such as fourths; +2 if the single-digit number is split across two or more syllables)
M _____
A _____
T _____
H _____


The following are my answers for each category.

Movie Titles
Moebius, Antonia’s Line, Travelling Salesman, (A) Hill on the Dark Side of the Moon
(8 points)

Historical Figures
Mandelbrot, Archimedes, Turing, Hypatia
(4 points)

Mancala, Angels and Devils, Tic-Tac-Toe, Hex
(8 points)

School Subjects
Mathematics, Algebra, Trigonometry, History
(7 points)

Words with One-Word Anagrams
mode (dome), angle (glean), triangle (integral), heptagon (pathogen)
(8 points)

Words Containing the Letter “Q”
manque, aliquot, triquetrous, harlequin
(6 points)

Math Terms
median, altitude, triangle, hypotenuse
(7 points)

Words Containing the Letters M, A, T, and H
tch, aromatherapy, thematic, homeopathic
(8 points)

Words with a Single-Digit Number Word Inside Them
mezzanine, artwork, tone, height
(6 points)

March 25, 2016 at 1:46 pm Leave a comment

NPR Puzzle Combinations

During yesterday’s NPR Sunday Puzzle, puzzlemaster Will Shortz presented the following challenge:

I’m going to give you some five-letter words. For each one, change the middle letter to two new letters to get a familiar six-letter word. For example, if I said FROND, F-R-O-N-D, you’d say FRIEND, because you’d change the O in the middle to I-E.

He then presented these nine words:


You can figure out the answers for yourself. For those that give you real trouble, you can either listen to the broadcast or search for the answer at More Words.

For those of you who don’t know who Will Shortz is, you have something in common with detective Jake Peralta from Brooklyn Nine-Nine:

The puzzle was fun. But what was more fun was the conversation that our family had about it. After the third word, Alex announced, “This shouldn’t be that hard. There are only 676 possible combinations.”

What he meant is that there are 26 × 26 = 676 possible two-letter combinations, which is true.

He continued, “But you can probably stop at 675, because Z-Z is pretty unlikely.”

I smiled. He had chosen to exclude Z-Z but not Q-K or J-X or V-P.

Yet his statement struck me as a challenge. Is there a five-letter word where the middle letter could be replaced by Z-Z to make a six-letter word? Indeed, there are several:


None of them are perfect, though, because Z-Z is not a unique answer. For instance, ROVER could become ROBBER, ROCKER, ROMPER, ROSTER, or ROUTER, and most puzzle solvers would surely think of one of those words before arriving at ROZZER (British slang for a police officer).

From the list above, the best option is probably GUILE, for two reasons. First, stumbling upon GUZZLE as the answer seems at least as likely as the alternatives GUGGLE, GURGLE, and GUTTLE. Second, the five-letter hint has only one syllable, but the answer has two, and such a shift makes the puzzle just a little more difficult.

But while Alex had reduced the field of possibilities to 675, the truth is that the number was even lower. The puzzle states that one letter should be “changed to two new letters,” which implies that there are only 25 × 25 = 625 possibilities. Although that cuts the number by 7.5%, it doesn’t help much… no one wants to check all of them one-by-one to find the answer.

When Will Shortz presented DEITY, the on-air contestant was stumped. So Will provided some help:

I’ll give you a tiny, tiny hint. The two letters are consonant, vowel.

Alex scrunched up his brow. “That’s not much of a hint,” he declared.

Ah, but it is — if you’re using brute force. To check every possibility, this reduces the number from 625 to just 21 × 5 = 105, which is an 80% reduction.

Still, Alex is correct. The heuristic for solving this type of puzzle is not to check every possibility. Rather, it’s to think of the word as DE _ _ TY, and then check your mental dictionary for words that fit the pattern. It may help to know that the answer isn’t two consonants, but most puzzle solvers would have suspected as much from the outset. In the English language, only SOVEREIGNTY, THIRSTY, and BLOODTHIRSTY end with two consonants followed by TY.

Below are five-letter math words for which the middle letter can be changed to two new letters to form a six-letter word. (Note that the answers aren’t necessarily mathy.)

DIGIT :: DI _ _ IT (unique)

POINT :: PO _ _ NT

FOCUS :: FO _ _ US

MODEL :: MO _ _ EL (unique)

POWER :: PO _ _ ER

RANGE :: RA _ _ GE (unique)

SOLID :: SO _ _ ID (unique)

SPEED :: SP _ _ ED

And below, your challenge is reversed: Find the five-letter word that was changed to form a six-letter math word.

CO _ EX :: CONVEX (unique)

LI _ AR :: LINEAR (unique)


RA _ AN :: RADIAN (unique)




December 8, 2015 at 6:20 am Leave a comment

One, Tooth, Ree, …

Were a state assessment item writer to get his hands on the puzzle that I discuss below, I believe that this is what the problem might look like:

Fifteen congruent segments labeled A-O are arranged horizontally and vertically to form five squares, with five of the segments shared by two squares each. Which three segments can be removed to leave three congruent squares?

Toothpicks - Assessment Writer

  1. {A, B, C}
  2. {A, C, E}
  3. {B, K, N}
  4. {D, E, F}
  5. {G, I, N}
  6. {H, A, L}
  7. {I, B, M}
  8. {K, L, M}

You’ve likely seen this problem before, but in a simpler and more elegant form.

Remove three toothpicks to leave three squares.

Real Toothpicks

Eli shared this puzzle with us the other night at dinner, after hearing it during his math enrichment class that day. (It’s my sincere hope that every family has similar conversations at mealtime.) This was a great problem to discuss at the dinner table, since a collection of manipulatives was close at hand.

As you might expect, Eli and his brother started by removing toothpicks randomly and seeing what happened. But it turns out that random toothpick removal is not a great strategy. There are 15 toothpicks in the arrangement, so there are 15C3 = 495 ways to select three of them.

Of course, some of those selections are obviously wrong, such as selecting the three toothpicks in the middle row, or choosing the three highlighted in pink:

Toothpick - Remove 3 ToothpicksBut even ignoring the obviously wrong ones, that still leaves a lot of unobviously wrong combinations to consider. Yet I let my sons randomly select toothpicks for a few minutes without intervention. Why? Because of a primary tenet for effective problem solving:

Get dirty.

You can’t get any closer to a solution if you don’t try something. Even when you don’t know what to do, the worst thing to do is nothing. So, don’t be afraid to get your hands a little dirty. Go on, try something, and see what happens. You might get lucky; but if not, maybe it’ll shed some light.

After a few minutes, they conceded that random toothpick selection was futile. That’s when they modified their approach, leading to another important aspect of problem solving:

Look at the problem from a different perspective.

“Hmm,” said Eli. “That’s a lotta toothpicks.” He thought for a second. “But there are only five squares.” That’s when you could see it click, leading to the most popular problem-solving principle on the planet:

Solve a simpler problem.

There are 5 squares in the arrangement, and there are only 5C3 = 10 ways to select three of them. If you first choose three squares, then you can count the number of toothpicks that would need to be removed. For instance, you’d have to remove five toothpicks to leave these three squares:

Toothpicks - Possible Removal

That doesn’t quite work. But the problem is a whole lot easier if you focus on “leave three squares” rather than “remove three toothpicks.” There are only 10 possibilities to check.

From there, it was just a hop, skip, and jump to the solution.

So, maybe this problem, as well as the million or so other remove-some-toothpicks problems, isn’t very mathematical. It only contains two mathematical elements — basic counting and geometry. In the vernacular of Norman Webb’s Depth of Knowledge Levels, the kinds of questions that you could ask about this problem — “How many toothpicks are there?”, “How many are you removing?”, “What is a square?” — would be DOK 1.

But they’re fun, and they’re engaging to kids, and they develop problem-solving skills, such as those mentioned above as well as perseverance.

For more problems like this, check out Simply Science’s collection of 16 toothpick puzzles.

Speaking of the number 16, here’s my favorite toothpick problem.

Remove 4 toothpicks to leave 4 small triangles.

16 Toothpicks

And finally, because I know you came here looking for jokes, here is the only joke I know that involves toothpicks. It’s rather disgusting. Continue at your own risk.

One night, as a bartender is closing his bar, he hears a knock at the back door. It’s a math graduate student. “Can I have a toothpick?” he asks. The bartender gives him a toothpick and closes the door.

Five minutes later, another knock. “Can I have another toothpick?” asks the student. The bartender gives him another one and closes the door.

Five minutes later, a third knock. “Can I have a straw?” asks the student.

“Sure,” says the bartender, and hands him a straw. “But what’s going on out there?”

“Some lady threw up in the back,” says the grad student, “but all the good stuff is already gone.”

October 5, 2015 at 6:10 am 1 comment

Colored Pyramids and the Mind of a 7-Year-Old

This is what kept me up last night. Literally.

Form a row of ten squares, with each square randomly colored red, green, or yellow. Call this Row 1. Then place nine squares in Row 2 slightly offset above Row 1, and color the squares in Row 2 according to the following rules:

  • If two side-by-side squares have the same color, the square between them in the row above has the same color.
  • If two side-by-side squares have different colors, the square between them in the row above has the third color.

Continue in this manner with eight squares in Row 3, seven squares in Row 4, and so on, with just one square in Row 10.

Here’s an example of a pyramid constructed in this manner:

Color Squares Pyramid

The 1’s, 2’s and 3’s in the diagram appear because this image was created with Microsoft Excel. Formulas were used to determine the number in each square, and conditional formatting was used to color the squares.

So far, this is just a test of how well you can follow rules, and it isn’t much fun. But here’s where it gets interesting.

How can you predict the color of the lone square in Row 10 after seeing only the arrangement of squares in Row 1 (and without constructing the rows in between)?

That’s right…
Shit Got RealThis shit just got real.

I found this problem last night on the Purdue Math Department’s Problem of the Week website. I lay awake in bed longer than I should have, but no solution came to me either while laying there awake or while I was sleeping. When I woke up, I shared it with my sons. I suspected they’d have fun coloring squares; I never suspected what actually happened.

I explained the problem to Alex and Eli, and I showed them an example of how to generate Row 9 from an arbitrary Row 10. They then pulled out their box of crayons and constructed rows 8, 7, 6, …, 1. Alex then looked at his pyramid for about 8 seconds and said, “Oh, I get it. You can find the color of the top square by _________.” (Spoiler omitted.)

“Is that your conjecture?” I asked.

“What’s a conjecture?” he replied.

“It’s a guess,” I told him. “It’s what you think the rule is.”

“No,” he said. “It’s not a guess. That’s the rule.”

He was pretty cocky for a seven-year-old.

So we tested his rule for another randomly-generated Row 10. It worked. So we tested it again, and it worked again. We tested it for six different hand-drawn pyramids… and it worked for every one of them.

That’s when I generated this Excel file. We used it to test Alex’s conjecture on 100+ other pyramids. It worked every time.

I still have no idea how he divined the rule so quickly.

For me, though, the cool part came when I was able to extend the puzzle with the following:

For what values of k can you predict the color of the lone square in Row k when there are k blocks in Row 1?

Trivially, if I gave you just two blocks in Row 1, you could most certainly predict the color of the square in Row 2.

But if I gave you, say, five blocks in Row 1, could you predict the color of the lone square in Row 5?

The final part of the Puzzle of the Week description from the Purdue website says exactly what you’d expect it to say:

Prove your answer.

I have a proof showing that Alex’s conjecture holds. Incidentally, that proof can be extended to prove the general result for the extension just posed.

Alex, however, has not yet generated a proof of his conjecture.

Then again, he’s only seven.

February 15, 2015 at 8:34 am 4 comments

Easiest KenKen Ever?

SIgmund FreudSaying that I like KenKen® would be like saying that Sigmund Freud liked cocaine. (Too soon?) ‘Twould be more proper to say that I am so thoroughly addicted to the puzzle that the length of my dog’s morning walks aren’t measured in miles or minutes but in number of 6 × 6 puzzles that I complete. (Most mornings, it’s two.) Roberto Clemente correctly predicted that he would die in a plane crash; Abraham de Moivre predicted that he would sleep to death (and the exact date on which it would occur… creepy); and I am absolutely certain that I’ll be hit by oncoming traffic as I step off the curb without looking, my nose pointed at a KenKen app on my phone and wondering, “How many five-element partitions of 13 could fill that 48× cell?”

I am forever indebted to Tetsuya Miyamoto for inventing KenKen, and I am deeply appreciative that Nextoy, LLC, brought KenKen to the United States. How else would I wile away the hours between sunrise and sunset?

I am also extremely grateful that the only thing Nextoy copyrighted was the name KenKen. This allows Tom Snyder to develop themed TomToms, and it allows the PGDevTeam to offer MathDoku Pro, which I believe to be the best Android app for playing KenKen puzzles.

The most recent release of MathDoku has improved numerical input as well as a timer. Consequently, my recent fascination is playing 4 × 4 puzzles to see how long it will take. A typical puzzle will take 20‑30 seconds; occasionally, I’ll complete a puzzle in 18‑19 seconds; and, every once in a while, I’ll hit 17 seconds… but not very often.

Today, however, was a banner day. I was in a good KenKen groove, and I was served one of the easiest 4 × 4 puzzles ever. Here’s the puzzle:

Easy 4x4 KenKen

And here’s the result (spoiler):

Easy KenKen

4 × 4 KenKen solved in 15 seconds

The screenshot shows that I completed the puzzle in just 15 seconds. And it’s not even photoshopped.

This puzzle has several elements that make it easy to solve:

  • The [11+] cell can only be filled with (4, 3, 4).
  • The [4] in the first column dictates the order of the (1, 4) in the [4×] cell.
  • The (1, 4) in the [4×] cell dictates the order of the (1, 2) in the [3+] cell.

After that, the rest of the puzzle falls easily into place, because each digit 1‑4 occurs exactly once in each row and column.

What’s the fastest you’ve ever solved a 4 × 4 KenKen puzzle? Post your time in the comments. Feel free to post your times for other size puzzles, too. (I’m currently working on a 6 × 6 puzzle that’s kicking my ass. Current time is 2:08:54 and counting.)

August 18, 2014 at 8:11 am Leave a comment

What Time Is It?

Here’s a math puzzle that is rather easy. Or is it?

You look in a mirror and see the reflection of a clock. In the reflection, the clock appears to show a time of 11:51. What is the real time?

Before I share the solution, how ’bout some clock jokes?

A hungry clock goes back four seconds.

I spent 35 minutes fixing a broken clock yesterday.
At least, I think it was 35 minutes…

What’s the difference between a man and a broken clock?
At least a broken clock is right twice a day.

It took me four hours to eat a dozen clocks.
It was very time consuming.

An alarm clock made of herbs will help you wake up on thyme.

My clock stopped at 8:23 a.m. I’m going to have a day of morning.

Puzzle Solution

The puzzle above is based on a math trivia question I found at Trivia Cafe.

The answer could be 12:09, if the reflection in the mirror looks like this…

11:51 Analog Clock

Then again, the answer could be 12:11, if the reflection in the mirror looks like this…

11:51 Digital Clock

And of course, there are all the silly possibilities — for instance, if the clock is broken, it doesn’t matter what time shows in the reflection, regardless if it’s analog or digital.

March 8, 2014 at 4:22 am 1 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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