Mailbag! (or, I Reply to Your Google Search Terms)

I’ve always wanted to write a column responding to reader mail. Just one problem: I don’t technically get any reader mail. The solution? Google search terms!

When someone finds my blog via a search engine, I get to see what they were looking for. Often, people type not just keywords, but whole questions or declarations into Google. The search queries range from the heart-wrenching (low grades make me feel stupid) to the oddball (decimals are boring) to the typos (can you divine by zero).

Here’s a selection of searches from the past week, 100% real. I’ve only added punctuation. And, obviously, responses.

Q: math engineer how much to tip?

A: Never tip engineers. It’s like feeding pigeons—it undermines their wild instincts. If we keep tipping engineers, they’ll become totally reliant on us, and lose their natural fear of humans.

Q: cubic formula how to memorize?

A: You poor, squandered soul! The easiest way to memorize the cubic formula is to file lawsuits against anyone who tries to make you. The quadratic formula is well worth knowing, and it’s simple enough to commit to memory, but the cubic and quartic formulas are far too complicated to be worth a student’s time.

Q: so i like computers but im not good at math.

A: Hey, I like math but I’m not good at computers! Mix in some venture capital, and we’ve got ourselves a start-up.

Q: writers who were bad at math?

A: Plenty, I’m sure. You can tell a great story without knowing a derivative from a domino. But who wants to hear about that? The schoolyard dichotomy between “science people” and “humanities people” is pointless. Let’s talk about the writers who were good at math.

Take Lewis Carroll. He was an accomplished mathematician, and logic games lie at the heart of his classics Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass.

Or take David Foster Wallace, who didn’t just title his heralded novel Infinite Jest, but wrote a history of infinity, too.

Or take the philosophers—Plato, who sought mathematical clarity from all of existence; or Descartes, who transformed Western philosophy while pioneering the coordinate plane; or Bertrand Russell, the influential mathematician who won a Nobel Prize… in Literature.

Or take the great popular math writers out there—John Allen Paulos with his broad erudition, Steven Strogatz with his genial explanations, Ian Stewart with his marvelous puzzles, Simon Singh with his striking lucidity, Paul Lockhart with his flavorful prose, Leonard Mlodinow with his wisdom and perspective…

Writing and math don’t stand opposed. They often go hand in hand.

Q: math is bad rhyme?

A: Hey, it’s not that bad—path, bath, wrath. Even “graph” will do in a pinch.

Q: 46 and taking classes, feeling dumb.

A: Keep at it! Math knowledge, like old puddles, tends to evaporate with time. But then it rains again, and the knowledge comes flooding back. Because math builds so tightly and cumulatively on itself, the early going will inevitably be rough. But with time, you’ll begin to fill gaps, and the pieces will start falling into place.

Q: quadratics with dead bodies for high school kids?

A: We have a winner for the “I-should-probably-forward-this-to-the-police” award! In any case, I think you’re looking for this great activity, which combines all my favorite themes—mathematics, musical theater, and plunging to one’s death.

Q: math is the worst subject ever? debate.

A: Buddy, math doesn’t even crack the top fifty worst subjects ever. Humanity has coughed up some real hairball disciplines. Take phrenology, the pseudoscience of figuring out people’s personalities by feeling the bumps on their skulls. Let’s make phrenology education mandatory for all students K-12, and then we’ll see if you come crying to me that “math is the worst subject ever.” Punk.

Q: expert skills in tic tac toe?

A: Sorry, but if you’re an expert at anything, you’re probably too old to play tic-tac-toe.

Q: explaining math so that students “get it” instantly is not good teaching.

A: True. If you can help students reach deep conceptual understanding and computational fluency immediately, then that’s not good teaching. That’s magic teaching.

The fact is, brains just don’t work that way. We don’t learn because someone tells us facts—although clear explanations are monumentally helpful. We learn by struggle, by trial and error, by slow inching steps. We need to make mistakes, to wrestle with incomprehension, to undergo epiphanies and breakthroughs. Deep learning is never instantaneous.

Q: sweet drawings.

A: Awww! Google’s algorithm thinks my drawings are sweet! My ego is up in the clouds.

Q: terrible drawings.

A: …and back down to Earth we tumble.

34 thoughts on “Mailbag! (or, I Reply to Your Google Search Terms)

  1. I didn’t know that you wanted to respond to email! I would love to write to a math teacher advice column. It’s Christmas break so I can’t think of any problems right now, but I usually have a million a day. I’ll start writing soon.

    1. Sounds awesome! Feel free to send comments/quips/anecdotes/observations, too. Half the point of a mailbag is to get other people to write my blog for me!

  2. I urgently needed your advice but you covered most of what I needed to know in this post. If I come up with some other burning question, will I have to pay?

    I love your blog. I use it as a random dose, elixir to cure what ails me. Very therapeutic.

    1. I’ll definitely charge in the future. For every question answered, you have to search “ben orlin is ____ [flattering adjective]” and then click a link to my blog.

      (And thanks for reading! 😉 )

  3. I throughly enjoyed your post. I’ve laughed out loud at the search terms that bring people to my blog from Google. It is more like some crazy word game for kids rather than a complex computer program. Oh well.

    And I agree with you on MAGIC TEACHING. Yes indeed!

    1. Weirdly, there’s a “” site out there including a page titled “Phrenology in the 21st Century.” And the page contains words other than “laughingstock”!

      1. Oh, but surely there are other synonyms for ridiculous buried in the text…or maybe the whole thing is just them trying to be facetious. Maybe.

        1. Downright spooky. I’d say we’re due for a phrenology horror film if Tarantino hadn’t already worked it into Django Unchained.

        2. I say that we make another one with those creepy dolls in it that come alive (except that the dolls will have bumpy heads, hence the phrenology part).

      2. It has been said that “anyone who believes in phrenology needs their head examined” – which is nicely self-referential, because the phrase “needs their head examined” originates from when phrenology was taken seriously …

        1. For the record, Edward, my next book is just going to be a compilation of your comments on this blog – they’re by far the most interesting reading I’m doing this days.

  4. On mathematicians who can write, please don’t forget Martin Gardiner or Douglas Hofstadter. The math columns they wrote for Scientific American were sublime, not to mention their books.

  5. I’m a fairly new reader, but I really enjoy your posts (and the bad drawings, of course). Oh, and yeah, I noticed and enjoy the alt-texts, but mostly ’cause I mistook the first post I stumbled across for a long-form web comic. It’s all in the expectations, I guess.

    1. Wait…are you saying this *isn’t* a long-form web comic? I am so confused…

      Also, yeah, the alt-tests are one of the major reasons I continued reading after the first time I discovered this site. Anyway, I’ll be sure to email Sir Orlin when I have a real question.

    2. Basically, this is my way of doing a long-form web-comic without being able to draw. (I could’ve copied Ryan North, I guess, but no point following where the masters have already trod.)

      1. Also, at one point, Queen Victoria – delighted by the Alice books – told her librarian to buy all this author’s other books. She was a bit taken aback to thus get all Charles Dogson’s mathematical work …

Leave a Reply