Several of the comic strips that’ve been sent my way the past couple days touch on cultural neutrality in mathematics problems. People like to think of mathematics as a universal language, which makes me think of, for example, the quipu — twisted woolen cords with smaller cords tied to the main one — that Incans used to represent numbers. Even knowing the number one is supposed to represent doesn’t help me work out how to read the thing, and that’s not even doing calculations, just representing a number.
Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy (February 1) uses several mathematics questions as part of a “general knowledge” quiz. Mathematics questions, particularly reasoning questions, are held up a good bit as examples of general knowledge since we’ve always cherished reasoning as a particularly precious sort of thinking, and because it’s easy to convince oneself that arithmetic and logic problems are culturally neutral. They’re not, but I would agree that “one times four” or the candy-counting problem are more culture-neutral than naming places with “-ham” or (to invent something not in the strip) identifying prime ministers of Canada would be. Really intriguing to me, though, is that Conley has Bucky Katt mention the Times as a newspaper without comics and the Daily News as one with: I had believed the strip to be set in or around Boston in the past, while this is pretty soundly a New York reference. Perhaps Conley’s let his daily comics lapse into reruns because he’s been moving, very slowly, across Connecticut?
Mac and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute (February 1) isn’t really a mathematics puzzle, but it does employ mathematical symbols in a way that I remember fondly from a bunch of “stories with holes” — superficially nonsensical problems which have logical resolutions if you can avoid being hobbled by implicit assumptions — so it’s really well-fitted for kids of the right age.