Fuzzy Math 101
By Charlie Seraphin
In 1961 Mattel introduced Ken as the male companion for their popular Barbie doll. If you remember Barbie and Ken, you probably remember when your teacher first introduced “word problems” into your math lessons. For example: If Barbie has two apples, three oranges and four pears, and Ken asks her for one apple, one orange and one pear, how many pieces of fruit will Barbie have?
The problems got progressively harder as you advanced through school. Sometimes teachers would try to trick you by asking a question that you couldn’t answer. For example: If Ken asks Barbie to borrow her watch, what time is it? Obviously you can’t answer the question with the information provided.
Sometimes questions involve multiple variables. See if you can solve this equation: If Barbie had a community non-profit like the MHA with 40 million dollars and Ken, who still has her watch, volunteers to take control of the MHA, purchases real estate and creates tax shelters, is Barbie maximizing the value of her resources for her community? In other words, should Barbie be happy with Ken’s decisions? (Hint–At 4 percent simple annual interest, Barbie’s foundation would earn one point six million dollars a year, so by 2020 the MHA should have about $47 million dollars of value.) If Ken hires four friends and pays them a hundred thousand dollars a year, donates a hundred thousand to both of Barbie’s favorite charities, and twenty thousand to four different scholarship funds each year for four years, how much money is left? Should Barbie be satisfied with that amount? Those are tricky questions. Even though there’s quite a bit of detailed information in the word problem, you’d be challenged to calculate accurate answers. Barbie trusts Ken because he’s part of the Barbie brand, (and he looks great in Mattel’s specially designed Ken clothing) but she can’t know if Ken is doing a good job or not without more information. Remember–you can’t answer a question if you don’t have all the facts.
Fuzzy math makes it impossible to solve problems. When you get to high school your teachers introduce ethics into problem-solving equations. For example, we learn that not everything we read in print is true. We learn that people don’t always tell the truth. Common sense suggests that if somebody tells you they’re doing one thing with your money but you’re not really sure, you need them to provide accounting. Accounting is an advanced class that eliminates fuzzy math. If you have forty million in a foundation and you entrust it to somebody, just like in the hypothetical problem, the only way to determine how much money you really have is to get hard numbers. You need to know exactly what was purchased, how much it cost, who was paid, how much they were paid, and where the rest of your money went. If this were a real life problem, you’d want to see the books on a regular basis. That’s the only way to calculate an accurate answer.
Fun Fact: Mattel’s Barbie brand still generates approximately a billion dollars a year. Mattel doesn’t report earnings for the Ken doll.
Stay tuned for next issue’s Fuzzy Math 101. ★