The counting horse problem
Fri, 17 Aug 2018
I was woken early one morning by a hammering on my back door.
I quickly dressed and rushed downstairs to find Alun in an agitated state.
"What's 7 + 9 Jed?" Alun said.
"I've no idea," I admitted, living on an island of just two inhabitants I've never bothered learning beyond 2 + 2 and my 2 times table. "Why do you need to know?"
"Someone's posted an entirely fictitious account of our recent problem with trousers on a writing site. I went to post a correction, but I have to pass a math test before I can add a comment?"
"I know Jed, a writing site that can't spell maths and makes you do complex equations before you can post a comment. Very peculiar."
"Well, if you really want to add your comment we'll have to ask someone for help with the math question."
"There's only one mathematician of that caliber on this archipelago, Jed, Dobin the counting horse."
"Of course," I said, "The counting horse." Dobin the counting horse has won countless awards for his counting abilities and is internationally renowned as a horse with a gift for mathematics.
Counting Horse Island is only a short distance from Happy Island. However, when we arrived it was impossible to see Dobin, as he was surrounded by a sea of people. I recognised one of them, Angus McFindus, one of the journalists on the Off-Mainlander Magazine.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"It's the world counting horse championship final," he said. "Dobin's up against Champion from the mainland."
"We'll have to wait and see the outcome, Jed, then ask Dobin the question at the end of the contest," Alun said. "It's the only way we'll get our answer to the math challenge."
We could now clearly make out Dobin and Champion in the main arena, with a question master in the centre setting the challenges. The scored showed 30 apiece, which even Alun and I could work out meant it was a close match. It was Dobin's turn to be asked a question.
"What is 29 plus 17?" the question master asked. Without even pausing Dobin stamped out his answer, tapping his foot 46 times.
"Forty-six, that's the right answer," said Angus excitedly. That's a tough question, surely Champion can't follow that."
It was Champion's turn. "What is 23 plus 9?" the question master said.
Champion paused for a second, then began to tap his foot. As he stamped his foot a 32nd time I saw a man on the other side of the crowd suddenly start jumping around excited. Champion stopped stamping.
"Thirty-two," said Angus. "He's right too. This really is the best final ever. What quality horsemathematicianship."
"Who's that man over there in the yellow shirt I saw jumping around just now?"
"Oh, that's Jumping Steve. He always leaps around when someone gets a maths question right."
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking Jed?" Alun asked.
"I was thinking of asking him where he got his shirt," I said. "I've always wanted a yellow shirt. Is that what you were thinking?"
"No Jed," Alun said. "I was thinking that maybe Champion isn't really counting at all, he might be seeing Steve leaping around when he reaches the right answer and stopping at that point."
"Good lord, what an extraordinary idea. What shall we do?"
"Let's ask him over here on some pretext and see how Champion copes without him."
"Oh, oh, oh," I said excitedly, "Can I supply the pretext? I could ask him about the shirt."
"Good idea, Jed," Alun said. "You do that."
By the time I'd brought Steve back with me Dobin had correctly answered his next question, so it was Champion's turn again. "What is 11 plus 18?" the question master asked.
"We'll see how well he does this time," Alun whispered to me.
As Champion stamped his foot a 29th time Steve started dancing and celebrating, but as he was now behind Champion the horse could no longer see him. However, this made no difference, Champion stopped at 29. He had got another question right.
At this point the questions got tougher.
"What is 27 plus 26?" the question master asked. Dobin began tapping his foot.
At 53 Steve started celebrating and Dobin stopped counting, he had got the answer right. However, someone in Champion's camp had spotted Steve dancing as Dobin reached 53, and of course, he was now in Dobin's eye-line.
"Dobin's cheating," Champion's trainer said, "That man started dancing when Dobin's count reached 53." Video footage was called for and it showed that Steve did indeed start jumping before Dobin stopped.
"Dobin is disqualified for cheating," the question master said, "I declare that Champion is the champion."
"But Steve wasn't even on this side of the arena until we called him over," I protested.
"So this is all your fault," said Dobin's trainer. "Throw them off the island, those bloody pests from Happy Island are always causing problems. It's like Miss Raccoon World all over again. Roxelle should have won that title paws down without you two."
Alun and myself were roughly grabbed by security staff who literally carried us off to our boat, not even pausing to get their 'roughly' and 'grabbed' in the correct order.
"Now we'll never know the answer to 7 plus 9," I said. "This whole adventure has been a complete waste of time."
"Never mind Jed," Alun said. "Nobody's going to read a writing site that sets maths test and can't even spell maths."