New Year’s Night: Mathematics is impossible!

So, the first night of the year, one thirty AM. Me and my brother are at our parents’ place, watching TV. (Apparent cause: Hey, home together, let’s spend every possible moment together. Real cause: Brother sent me to buy snacks; I panicked and overperformed and now there’s a shopping bag full of salty stuff and we’re scattering come morning.)

We’re getting ready to fight over what to watch (Me: Hobbit extras! He: America’s Funniest Home Videos reskinned for Finland!), when I see mathematics on the random channel open and say “Hey! Holy MS Word equation editor, Batman!”

(My brother’s not Batman; he’s a physicist. But we had watched the 1966 Adam West Batman film a few days ago before that, and it had been one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen.)

But this show: it is one of those nighttime live call-in shows: it shows a puzzle or a question, and if you call in and answer it correctly, you win a small sum of money. (Well, if you call in you’re fed into a series of multiple choice questions, and if you answer them correctly, and are the quickest of the round — one round’s a minute or two of callers, maybe? then you get on air and are allowed to guess.)

DSC_0146(Click for bigger.)

(Translation: “Laske kaikki mahdolliset luvut yhteen!” is “Add up all the numbers you can!” — more literally but less fluently “Count all the possible numbers together!”)

(“Nopeita kierroksia” isn’t “Thus I suffer for my sins” but “Quick rounds!”)

Me and my brother watched, with increasing puzzlement, hatred and incredulity, this program for an hour and a half, while smarter members of the family slept.

There were dozens and dozens of callers, most of them not audibly inebriated, and equally many different answers, all of them wrong. The spread was in thousands. The MC or people-goader — a nice, a little awkward young guy doing his first night of this, at the lowest end of the TV-personality totem pole — grew more and more anxious with every “No! Sorry, that wasn’t the right answer…” until his turn ended and he was replaced by an equally shocked, though more experienced, woman.

By now you think this is an illustration of the stupidity of the sort of people who watch TV on a fine New Year’s night; but no. Me and my brother both have Ph.D.’s, though admittedly only mine is in mathematics; his is in the soft and almost humanistically unrigorous subject of physics. We came up with a dozen ways to interpret the problem to explain why the right answer hadn’t been called in yet; but eventually someone always called in with our most likely guesses, and proved them wrong.

(We didn’t call, because then we would have been rubes, not amateur ethnologists.)

For example: The equation’s not that difficult. But it’s been called already, so that’s not it.

Hang on a minute, that 14 is really badly aligned. Is it a trick, a 1^4? Do the people behind this show know what exponentiation is?

Hey, wait, that 5+5. That’s not a plus sign, that’s division! You need to get really close to a passably big screen to notice that…

Hey, wait, the problem is “Count all the possible numbers together!” Not “solve the equation for question mark” — oh, how our education misleads us.

Oh, so it is addition. Disregard the multiplication, the minus signs, all that. (I hold forth for a few minutes on “The numbers in 5-7 are 5 and 7, not 5 and -7, unless you remember, as one does, that subtraction is defined as the addition of the sum-reciprocal number of the second operand,* in which case that’s 5 plus -7, but what kind of mathematical knowledge can we assume of this program and its audience — you tell me, you have the degree in a soft science, physicist.”)

(* = This could be accurate.)

Wait, “all possible numbers”? Does that mean… all natural numbers? All real numbers, all complex numbers, and… fuck, that’s a lot. And that’s either undefined or zero.

No, you physicist, I’m not going to call in with “undefined or zero”, I’m sure that’s not how they mean it. It’s not my fault mathematics makes you read things like a paranoia patient. And we call that rigor, thank you very much.

Oh, those numbers on the left-hand side of the screen, one to ten. Oh you clever bastards.

Hang on a minute. The sevens on the first and last row look different. Maybe the first one isn’t a number… look, it’s the same as those definitely-not-numbers squiggles around the equation!

Look at that 10. That’s not the same 1 as in the 19 on the next row… more fake numbers! Subtract ten! And that 5 on the last row is just a squiggle!

Wait, does this mean the numbers in the “Hyvää uutta vuotta!” (“Good New Year!”) rectangle, or does it include the phone number too? The reward money number? The 18 in the K-18 age limit? (Is that minus eighteen?) Nobody’s called in with a number over seventy million, but the spread is astonishing — here’s a partial record of about an hour — I’ve inserted comments where our best guesses were shot down:







































177 (fuck)






160 (double fuck)



Please note the -2030 and the 1543. That’s worse spread than with first-year non-math-majors on Introduction to Small Integers!

The second MC, the woman, eventually grew really desperate with the hints: add up the numbers, add them up, listen to what I’m saying, don’t solve the equation, add up the numbers, all the numbers, all the numbers, all the numbers, in this rectangle to the left of me, oh God, how can we be doing the third hour of this, usually this isn’t more than an hour — that didn’t help us, or the callers.


And that scroll at the very bottom of the screen? I hope it was a general rules-scroller, because it advised one to consider “all Arabic, Roman or written-out numbers while solving the problem”.

Oh, the reward? Began at 200 before we started watching; eventually crept up to 750 euros when we stopped (3 AM), and to 950 by 4 AM when the show stopped. (Parents have a provider that offers TV with a two-week recall.)

The next morning I checked the scheduled early-morning continuation of the show, but it had been replaced with an SMS forum — you text them, and a slow scroll of the received texts shows on the screen — there were, as usually there are, racists and xenophobes and some that were both actually, but no answers.

The good people of, I hope you are happy with destroying my faith in mathematics and the Finnish people just two hours into 2014.

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