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Keeping an Eye on Federal Thoughts

The following comments were recently sent to me by B.K., a friend from Wyoming who would prefer the sobriquet "Curmudgeon Emeritus, University of Wyoming." Enjoy....

In contrast to the efforts of MathNEXUS to breath life and humor into mathematics, the national media appears to have a daily report that attests to the boring, meaningless nature of mathematics. Indeed, those characteristics are shared by the many textbook and test "problems" and can be captured by the old farcical test item:
If it takes a hen and half a day and a half to lay an egg and a half,
how many pancakes does it take to shingle a dog house?

Okay ... so if the student doesn't care about a situation presented for solution, it really isn't a problem; it's just an exercise. The consequence is that such nonsensical pseudo-problems raise the all too familiar what's-this-any-good-for? question in the minds of students. Now THAT is a problem.

So we must thank Congress and the media for presenting new opportunities and a new format for mathematics problems. A recent Associated Press article featured a very smug picture of John Boehner taken at the time that the U.S. House of Representatives announced that it had approved a budget of $1.1 trillion dollars to carry the government through September 2014. That article also just happens to be one of a collection of several recent articles that have played with mathematics to make a point. In the AP case, it was the mathematics of the 2014 federal budget bill of $1.1 trillion that was just passed by Congress. The mathematics in the AP article had bullets with the following information.

  • The federal budget bill was 1,582 pages long.
  • The bill contained 370,445 words.
  • The average cost of the bill per page was about $695 million.
  • The average cost if the bill per word was about $2.9 million.
That leaves one gasping.

The article also noted that the U.S. Constitution had only 4,543 words. (NOTE: By my count, those 4,543 words account only for the 4-page document of 1789; they don't include the Bill of Rights or other amendments.) The AP article didn't make any use of that fact about the Constitution, but if we do the math corresponding to that done on the 2014 budget bill, we find:

  • The Constitution that has served for 225 years was 4 pages long; the short-term federal budget bill required about 395 times as many pages.
  • That long-effective Constitution contained 5,453 words; the short-term federal budget bill was 81.5 times as wordy.
  • Had it been the Constitution that was being presented to the public by Boehner, it would have been at an average cost of about $275 billion per page. [Granted ... the fine parchment used in the Constitution was more expensive than today's all-purpose copy paper.]
  • Also, had it been the Constitution that was being presented to the public by Boehner, it would have been at an average cost of about $241 million per word. Clearly, the worth of the words of the Constitution would quite literally be more than golden.
By the way, there was no mention by AP that the short-term federal budget is just a smidgen more that the nation's current $1 trillion student loan debt. Now there's still another mathematics/social studies connection that's ripe for exploitation.

Thanks, Bob...!