This post was inspired by an exchange we had in the review of Thomas Sowell’s new book.
You know how bad math classes have become. What makes it worse is that politics have crept into the classroom. Here is an example of an actual math-quiz problem, quoted in Foreign Policy (linked from a story we did two years ago):
In 2004, a bread roll cost 40 cents. For the wheat that went into it, the farmer received less than 2 cents. What do you think about that?
This question might have preserved some semblance to math had it required the student to do some figuring. Where’s the math? I’m not even sure what the politics are, since five percent of the finished, full-retail price goes to the farmer, which is pretty good.
The goal of a good story problem is to make it relevant, to pick topics the student can understand and even—I hate saying this—sympathize with. And if we can make it “socially relevant”, why, we’re doing our part to save the world. At least, that is the attitude of all leading pedants today.
With that in mind, I have begun the creation of highly relevant math problems. The situations are of both world and local importance.
Solving these problems requires the kinds of skills usually taught in “pre-calculus” or high-school algebra courses.
- Grand socialist (of both the national and international varieties) schemes were directly responsible for the deaths of at least 150 million, over roughly a 100-year period. If the average height (including babies and the tall) is 66 inches, and you stacked those bodies end-to-end, you could reach about 156,250 miles. Now, the moon is about 240,000 miles away. Assuming the same kill rate, how many more years of grand socialist rule would we need to (A) reach the moon, and (B) return safely to Earth?
- The glorious international-socialist Chairman Mao killed at least 50 million people. Assume that for each person murdered, there was one relative who (in secret) cried over that person’s death. Suppose this crying led to a shedding of 3 teaspoons of tears (3 tsp. = 1 tbl. = 0.5 fl. oz.). How high would the walls of a pool built to hold this flood of tears be, if the pool’s radius is 50 feet? Hint: first calculate the base area of this pool.
- In 2009, there were roughly 6.9 billion people in the world, each of whom must be fed. 500 million people were fed insufficiently or were starving. Food, of course, comes from farms, 99% of which are conventional, and 1% “organic”. The yield from an organic farm is, optimistically, about 60% that of a conventional farm. If 50% of farms were organic, how many people would be fed insufficiently or would starve? Assume even food and farm distribution.
- Farmer Jones has 10,000 acres, on which it is estimated there are 250 vermin per acre. In addition to attending to his other duties, farmer Jones can shoot 50 vermin a day. (A) Assuming the rate of which vermin breed is negligible, how many days would it take farmer Jones to clear his land? (B) Farmer Jones has three boys, each of which is twice as efficient as their old man at shooting vermin. If all three boys and farmer Jones pulled together, how many days would it take to clear the land? (C) Farmer Jones is 60% accurate with his shots, meaning 40% of his shots go astray. His boys are each 80% accurate. How many rounds of ammunition will the family expend clearing their land?
- Uncle Ted’s Kill ’em & Grill ’em chain of restaurants serves venison sausage, which, despite its name, is made of 40% deer meet and 60% pig parts. Only 70% of a deer carcass can be turned into sausage, and 95% of a pig’s can. Assume that the weight of both deer and pigs are the same at 150 lbs, and that sausages are 0.5 lbs. In 2009, Uncle Ted sold 2.5 million venison sausages. (A) How many deer and pigs does this represent? (B) If, in an effort to comply with government regulations, Uncle Ted replaced 25% of his venison sausages with soy protein, how many fewer deer and pigs would he have slaughtered?
- A murderer is fifty times as likely to kill (again) compared against somebody who has never murdered before. In 2009, there were approximately 2.4 million inmates in all prisons. About 1% of these inmates were murderers. (A) If the murder rate per year for previous non-murderers is 1 in 1000, then how many murders will there be in prison in a year? Ignore all those who are murdered by ex-felons after they are released from prison. Assume there is no death penalty. (B) If the death penalty were exacted for all murderers, how many fewer dead bodies would there be in prison? Assume all executions are carried out in prison. Hint: this one is tricky!
Remember: any problem at this level involves simplifications. Therefore, to criticize a problem for it simplifications is to argue needlessly.
That’s all for now. Suggestions for more? We get enough of these and we can publish our own book! Title: Social Justice Mathematics.
Update Two problems were fixed because of ambiguities. Thanks to John Galt for reminding us of one.