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College tuition puzzle no match for problem-solving daughter

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Feliks Zemdegs of Australia set the single-time world record for solving a 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube at 4.22 seconds on May 6.

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By Mark Rutledge

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Sharon and I took our first college student out for a late dinner this week after some computer shopping. An amazingly knowledgeable young man in the computer store hooked us up with what he considered the optimal choice in a laptop for engineering majors.

I keep reassuring Carly that she is free to change her major at least six times before settling on a definite field of study. She keeps reassuring me that she’s sure already, which blows my mind. I changed my major four times on the way to freshman orientation — and the final choice foolishly involved math.

I lasted two quarters before they told me I should go home and start a rock collection.

By the time I went back to college, the university was on semesters. I waited until my final semester before fulfilling the math requirement for a journalism degree, choosing a class that my daughter dispatched during high school: probability and statistics.

For me, the class was a true game of chance that required three tutors and the convergence of certain random variables, but I somehow made it through.

During dinner, Carly began telling us about how she had volunteered for a study that her psychology professor was conducting. In one exercise, she was given a mathematical riddle and 30 minutes to solve it.

Carly is a puzzle person. She had the little golf-tee triangle at Cracker Barrel mastered before the biscuits came. Rubik’s Cube never had a chance against her.

I could not solve a Rubik's Cube if they painted every little square the same color.

The word problem is about a king who throws a party to which 1,000 men have been invited. Following tradition, each man is to bring a gift bottle of wine. The king learns that one of the men has poisoned his bottle, but the king does not know which one.

The dungeon has 10 prisoners scheduled for execution, so the king decides to have them taste all of the wine. The party is to begin 24 hours after the guests arrive—exactly the amount of time the poison takes to reach a sudden and fatal outcome.

What must be determined is how the king can conduct the taste test among the 10 prisoners so that he will have identified the poisoned bottle before the party begins.

With that information, my puzzle-minded daughter had the solution in eight minutes. She did it by assigning a number to each bottle, a letter to each prisoner, and applying decimals and square roots and drawing little circles and several squiggly lines that mean absolutely nothing to me.

The professor said that for the purposes of his study he usually just records the time it takes before the subject gives up.

I could qualify for that control group.

Carly admitted that she knew how to go about solving the problem because she had worked similar riddles.

“Riddle me this,” I said. “How can a college student finish her degree on time and never owe anyone a dime?”

She bested her poisoned-wine puzzle-solving time by about 7 minutes 57 seconds.

“That’s easy,” Carly replied. “She uses her parents’ money.”

I’m tickled that I didn’t pass along my math-phobia gene — but it’s not going to be cheap.

Contact Mark Rutledge at mrutledge@reflector.com or like him on Facebook at Mark Rutledge Columns.

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