I remember it like it was yesterday. We were sitting in Mr. Pinkerton’s classroom in De Queen Middle School. The first Bush was president, and the Internet had not been invented. We’d never heard of iPhones, and Mr. Pinkerton was using white chalk on a green chalkboard to teach us about algebraic equations.
And then it happened. One of my fellow students said the words that should have remained in his head. The student spoke the words to the heavens, not directly to the teacher. He spoke them as a lament: “What are we ever gonna use this stuff for anyway?” Mr. Pinkerton’s face instantly turned stoplight-red. For a few seconds, he said nothing. But it didn’t take him long to frame a response to the student.
We could always judge the severity of Mr. Pinkerton’s displeasure by the intensity of the V-shaped veins on his forehead. This was a biggie, a solid eight on the V-scale.
Math was never my favorite subject. I sailed through the humanities with effortless glee, but math required too much from me. I did learn to appreciate the inherent practical value of math, and even enjoyed using my hard-won geometry skills to help a former boss compute angles on a deck he was building.
But the question remains: “What are we ever gonna use this for anyway?” Well hold on kids, you’re about to learn.
Yesterday I was at the Gillham EZ-Mart. If you’re not familiar with those terms, please allow me to define them briefly. Gillham: A town in rural southwest Arkansas. It is home to about 200 souls, at least that many dogs, and one EZ-Mart. EZ-Mart: A regional chain of convenience stores, with locations in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.
In rural communities without a grocery store (or any other store for that matter), EZ-Mart sells the things that will save you a trip to “town.” Stop in for coffee and some smokes, or treat yourself to something fried on a stick. Or if you’re prone to gambling, you can indulge in a lottery ticket and prepackaged chicken salad sandwich. The recently-constructed location in nearby Lockesburg is a veritable piazza, a monument to small-town commerce, caffeine and community life.
As I was filling my 32 oz. fountain drink, I noticed a shifty guy beside me. He looked like he had just stepped out of casting for Caddyshack. There was a brown leather jacket, stringy mullet, and camouflage pants. Think Rambo, not Realtree.
He grabbed a 16 oz. styro coffee cup and began filling it, but not with coffee. No. That would be too boring, too predictable for EZ-Mart. This gentleman was filling his coffee cup with sugar, repeatedly pressing the sugar button at the coffee station. Each press of the button produced an electronic ejection of sugar, with a sound reminiscent of a science fiction laser gun from the 1970’s. “P-shew… P-shew… P-shew.”
Like most of you, I was taught not to stare. I failed. I gawked sideways as he filled his coffee cup to the rim with sugar, capped it with a lid, gathered his other purchases (a Dr. Pepper and a snack of some sort) and proceeded to the check out. He purchased a cup full of sugar, but paid for it as if it were coffee.
Last night was a bad night at our house. Donald Trump did great in the Super Tuesday voting, and our cat died. I needed a distraction. And so I turned off CNN and started thinking about the guy who bought a coffee cup full of sugar. What was his angle? Unlike the popularity of Donald Trump or Golden Corral, maybe this was a phenomenon I could actually solve. And the answer lies with math. So buckle up, kids. Let’s do a word problem…
Joe Dirt purchased 16 fl. oz. of sugar for .99 at the Gillham EZ-Mart. Question: How much did Joe steal, if any?
We have some knowns (what Joe paid for, and what he actually received) and some unknowns (the value of what Joe actually received). Math is our friend here. And Google.
We need to establish the retail value of what Joe received. As pictured, EZ-Mart sells 32 dry ounces of granulated sugar for $2.99. That yields a retail value of .09 per dry ounce ($2.99/32) of sugar. A non-conformist, Joe instead paid .99 for 16 fluid ounces, or .06 per fl. oz. (.99/16). We’re not done, because we’re not yet comparing apples to apples.
In order to solve our problem, we must know how much a fluid ounce of sugar weighs, because EZ-Mart doesn’t sell sugar in the manner in which Joe chose to purchase it yesterday. For this unknown, we must consult Google. We learn that granulated sugar weighs 7.1 dry oz. per U.S. standard measuring cup, which is 8 fl. oz. This one is easy: if 8 fluid ounces of sugar weighs 7.1 dry ounces, then 16 fl. oz. of sugar weighs 14.2 dry oz. (7.1×2).
Using the coffee cup, Joe paid .99 for 14.2 dry ounces of sugar, for a rate of .07 per dry oz. (.99/14.2). The retail value of EZ-Mart sugar is .09 per dry oz. For each dry ounce of sugar that Joe surreptitiously purchased in his coffee cup, he had a net ill-gotten gain of .02 (.09 retail value less the .07 he actually paid).
When we extend that over the entirety of his 14.2 dry oz. sugar purchase, Joe beat the Gillham EZ-Mart out of .28 (14.2x.02) with his treachery.
See kids, math IS useful in everyday life.
And may God forgive Joe Dirt for stealing .28 from the Gillham EZ-Mart.