Jewish Problems
October 11, 2011 1:56 AM   Subscribe


 
Color me undesirable, because I was lost from the get-go.

Is there a "let me put this in terms you can understand" version of this? For, say, people who got as far as Algebra II: Electric Boogaloo then promptly forgot everything after high school?
posted by ShutterBun at 2:29 AM on October 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


It seems from the link, but not explicitly stated, that there were multiple versions of the entrance exam. 'A' given to desirable candidates, and 'B' given to others, where B was overly complicated and if someone failed or protested their result, the proctors could say, "we didn't take you because clearly these have easy answers and you failed to discern them," to cover their asses.
posted by efalk at 3:00 AM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the document: The Mathematics Department of Moscow State University, the most prestigious mathematics school in Russia, was at that time actively trying to keep Jewish students (and other "undesirables") from enrolling in the department. One of the methods they used for doing this was to give the unwanted students a different set of problems on their oral exam. I was told that these problems were carefully designed to have elementary solutions (so that the Department could avoid scandals) that were nearly impossible to fi nd. Any student who failed to answer could easily be rejected, so this system was an effective method of controlling admissions. These kinds of math problems were informally referred to as "Jewish" problems or "coffins". "Coffins" is the literal translation from Russian; they have also been called "killer" problems in English.
posted by vidur at 3:03 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Later, I emigrated to the United States. When I started my own web page, one of the first things I did was to post some of the problems. People sent me more problems, and solutions to the ones I had. It turned out that not all of the coffins even had elementary solutions: some were intentionally ambiguous questions, some were just plain hard, some had impossible premises. This article is a selection from my collection; we picked out some choice problems that do contain interesting tricks or ideas."

But I don't see how these problems are designed specifically to prevent Jews from passing the entrance exam. They are just really hard problems that even a blue-eyed Socialist would have trouble solving.

It's not like they were asking questions that only Jews would not be able to solve:

Using just two fish and one basket explain how Jesus fed a crowd of hundreds. Show your work.
posted by three blind mice at 3:04 AM on October 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


They only gave those questions to "Jewish students (and other 'undesirables')."
posted by taz at 3:13 AM on October 11, 2011 [8 favorites]


Problem 1 is especially effective in filtering out Jews:
x(8sqrt(1-x)+sqrt(1+x))≤11*sqrt(1+x)-16*sqrt(1-x)

Problem 11 always trips up the Negros:
Prove that sin(10°) is irrational.

When it's important to distinguish Orientals from Muslims, Problem 16 is useful:
You are given two parallel segments. Using a straightedge, divide one of them into six equal parts.

Eskimos and Swedes often do well with the next question, but Mexicans and Lithuanians usually have trouble:
Is it possible to put an equilateral triangle onto a square grid so that all the
vertices are in corners?

Italians and people from Bikini Atoll generally stumble on questions like:
What's larger, log2 3 or log3 5?

It's important to understand mathematics, because if you understand mathematics, you understand people.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:24 AM on October 11, 2011 [11 favorites]


No, you are misunderstanding. These are especially tricky questions that were only posed to folks that were undesirable. The other applicants had mundane questions. But, we are given to understand that the undesirables were Jews, not say, Asians or Africans. I would like to see some confirmation of the assertion that the undesirable applicants were specifically Jewish, or even some confirmation that this imbalance in questionnaires existed.
posted by CCBC at 3:33 AM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]



But I don't see how these problems are designed specifically to prevent Jews from passing the entrance exam.


They were only given to "undesirables." The choice of those questions was by design -- to prevent Jews from passing the exam.
posted by bluefly at 3:38 AM on October 11, 2011


I would like to see some confirmation of the assertion that the undesirable applicants were specifically Jewish, or even some confirmation that this imbalance in questionnaires existed.

There are some citations in the text of other people publishing such questions, but they seem to come from the same source.

Interesting post! Thanks.
posted by bluefly at 3:41 AM on October 11, 2011


Her web page links to a journal article (PDF), "Admission to the Mathematics Faculty in Russia in the 1970s and 1980" that gives some information:
To this day we don't know the details of the secret instruction of the early 1970s which (I was told) was more or less to the following effect: restrict or delay the admission to certain post-secondary schools of individuals with ties to states whose politics are hostile to the USSR. Apparently, these could only be Jews, Germans, Koreans, Greeks, and possibly Taiwanese Chinese.
The author then writes about how hard it has been to get people to talk about this, and admit that it happened:
When I approached S.P. Merkur'ev, rector of St. Petersburg University (he died a short time ago) and asked him if it was possible to see the archives of the party committee that dealt with these matters, he offered to help me but warned that I should not overestimate the change since the putsch; almost all the organizers of these things have retained not only their former positions but also power at the University, and, for example, he was unable to remove one of the particularly odious deans.

I soon saw a confirmation. When I attempted to induce two historians — who had earlier been expelled from the University partly because they tried to object to scandalous practices of the kind I describe here — to work in the archives, they refused, saying, "We are afraid that, 'they' will get us."

In 1987 I brought an article about a case of admission to the progressive weekly Moscow News. The head of the department told me, "We can't print an article dealing with this topic. There will be a flood of angry letters."
posted by Houstonian at 3:47 AM on October 11, 2011


This is a great resource for the next time one of my students asks for an extra credit question. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 3:48 AM on October 11, 2011 [6 favorites]


They only gave those questions to "Jewish students (and other 'undesirables')."

OK. I see that now. Why? Couldn't the State-run university simply refuse to admit Jews on any grounds whatsoever? Why go through this charade of extra-hard math test? If there was an official conspiracy to keep Jews out of the university this seems rather overwrought way of doing it - even for the Soviets.

Perhaps Russian Jews did so well on the standard test that they were overrepresented in the student population. One can understand the University in Moscow wanting to achieve socialist diversity. To achieve such noble goal, it would make sense to give different tests to different groups so that in the end you got the best of each group and the student population reflected the national demographics and not just something unimportant like raw ability. How could this be unfair?
posted by three blind mice at 3:51 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have a proof that an+bn = cn, n>2, has no solutions. But the margins of my society are too small to contain it.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:58 AM on October 11, 2011 [13 favorites]


This reminds me of the White Australia policy. People wanting to migrate to Australia were given a dictation test in a European language of the immigration officer's choice, so desirable immigrants would get English or whatever Western European language they were familiar with while undesirable ones would get obscure dialects. Jewish communist Egon Kisch was fluent in several languages so when he tried to get into the country in 1934 he was asked to recite the Lord's Prayer in Scottish Gaelic (he eventually made it in, on bail). White Australia was official policy and law until 1966.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:07 AM on October 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


You reach down and you flip the pastrami sandwich over on its back, Leon.

Do you make up these questions, Mr. Holden? Or do they write 'em down for you?

The sandwich lays on its back, the rye going stale in the hot sun, begging to be eaten, but it can't. Not without your help. But you're not helping.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN I'M NOT HELPING
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:21 AM on October 11, 2011 [6 favorites]


More seriously, I am impressed by the ingenuity of the problems. The solutions are really trivial (I could explain any of them to a college freshman) but figuring the solutions out would be incredibly difficult, especially in an oral examination. They are an exceptional bit of craftsmanship, albeit to a rotten end.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 4:22 AM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Problem 4 claims to be an inequality but is an equality. Is this a metaphor about race?
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:26 AM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


If it was the other way around it would be a pretty good metaphor for Soviet communism.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:27 AM on October 11, 2011


three blind mice: "Why? Couldn't the State-run university simply refuse to admit Jews on any grounds whatsoever?"
That could easily have been used as propaganda by enemies of the Revolution. Also, as far as I can glean from my ex-Soviet colleagues, "keeping up appearances", i.e. pretending nothing is amiss, was very important. Consider that by doing it this way, only the staff posing the questions would know. Outright refusal of Jews would quickly become public knowledge.
posted by brokkr at 4:36 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


These are evil questions in every sense of the word.

For example, (4) has the utterly trivial solution y=x but there's no roadmap to the solution - you just have to come up with the substitution

x = (y3+1)/2

out of thin air.

I had to do a live interview when I applied to Oxford to do math and they simply threw a problem like this at you and waited for you to solve it on the board. I can only imagine the pain and humiliation of having to deal with one of these depth charges orally.
posted by unSane at 4:37 AM on October 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


I've actually given problem 2 to my calculus class before, on an exam. I hope I don't get retroactively punished for anything.
posted by King Bee at 4:50 AM on October 11, 2011


Is it an intentional irony that this problem set begins with a pair of inequalities?
posted by DavidandConquer at 4:50 AM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


When I was a teen I found out that my dad had been a total slacker in college. I was shocked and excited to call him out on his hypocrisy in insisting that I work hard for good grades. So I smugly confronted him and asked him why he didn't work harder when he was in school. He calmly explained to me that as a Jew, he would not have been able to join the Communist Party, get into the advanced programs that interested him, or rise beyond a very junior level in his chosen field, so there was no point in trying to impress anyone with merit. He didn't have to add, because I knew, that his family was too poor to come up with a sufficient bribe to offset his Jewishness.

I find that Americans tend to be pretty unaware of the depth of Russian antisemitism. It existed, it profoundly affected the lives of many, certainly including my family, and it continues to this day. My Russian birth certificate identifies my race as "Jew." My father's passport does the same for him, and it was issued sometime in the last decade. In my experience, many Americans have moved on from seeing Jewishness as primarily racial. If a friend tells me they're Jewish, they typically mean they practice the Jewish religion or participate in Jewish culture. But if they don't do those things, they usually clarify that their parents are Jewish but they aren't - whereas I've never heard someone say, e.g., my parents are black but I'm not. In Russia, Jewishness is understood as being more like blackness than, say, Buddhism.

three blind mice, another thing to keep in mind is that a major propaganda piece for Communist Russia was American racism. Russians would trumpet the backwardness of American oppression of black people in contrast to their own enlightened whatever. It's total bullshit, of course. But it's part of the reason why Russian officials were invested in maintaining the superficial appearance of racial impartiality.
posted by prefpara at 5:00 AM on October 11, 2011 [44 favorites]


From the article

"It turned out that not all of the coffins even had elementary solutions: some were intentionally ambiguous questions, some were just plain hard, some had impossible premises."

I'd be interested to see examples of these, but there don't seem to be any in the article or in the referenced website.
posted by doiheartwentyone at 5:06 AM on October 11, 2011


it would make sense to give different tests to different groups so that in the end you got the best of each group and the student population reflected the national demographics and not just something unimportant like raw ability. How could this be unfair?

Yeah, I see what you're doing there. Would it perhaps been different if there had been national agonising over the issue, widespread public debate, many legitimate court cases, studies and research, and the policy was addressing historical and current wrongs rather than perpetuating them? Well, yes, it would. Not that this isn't a difficult issue, you're right.
posted by alasdair at 5:32 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oooh, #21 is also a good Calculus I problem. I'm totally using that.
posted by King Bee at 5:35 AM on October 11, 2011


I sent this to my math-PhD student sweetheart. I'm not sure if she'll say "Ooh these are fun and tricky" because of their deceptively simple solutions that are hard to find, or if she'll say "Are you fucking kidding me, the last thing I want to see right now is more math."

Probably a little bit of both.
posted by entropone at 6:02 AM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Perhaps Russian Jews did so well on the standard test that they were overrepresented in the student population.

Just another Soviet-born Jew chiming in here with no, it was straight-up anti-Semitism. It was open, and almost completely unrestrained, on a social level. If you want to see a population in which Jews are overrepresented, take a look at the emigration statistics 1970-1990.
posted by griphus at 6:11 AM on October 11, 2011 [12 favorites]


unSane: For example, (4) has the utterly trivial solution y=x

I don't follow that at all. You need to find some real number y that makes the equation true.
posted by King Bee at 6:32 AM on October 11, 2011


This is slightly off-topic, but for those unfamiliar with the history of Jews in the Soviet Union, an interesting read is the history of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, an attempt by Stalin to create a "Jewish homeland" within the USSR.

The Wikipedia take on it is pretty bland (so if you have any better online sources, please do post), but it seems that at least part of the motivation was simply to get Jews as far away from Central Russia as possible, in a politically-acceptable manner.
posted by thegears at 6:33 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm reminded of my university entrance exam, which suddenly makes me wonder if I was considered an undesirable...

On a more serious note, it seems that this would be a really good way to get back-door discrimination into all of the tech companies that revel in such tasks at interview, with all of the deniability that you could want.

Still, cool problems when it isn't your future on the line, thanks veedubya!
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 6:39 AM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of the White Australia policy. People wanting to migrate to Australia were given a dictation test in a European language of the immigration officer's choice, so desirable immigrants would get English or whatever Western European language they were familiar with while undesirable ones would get obscure dialects.

Those crazy racist policies of the past!

Good thing we have replaced them with the much more acceptable classist/corporatist discrimination of today.

The current UK government is proposing adding a history component to the Residency exam that most Brits already can't pass and a financial bond that the median wage earning Brit couldn't pay.*


*All corporate employed immigrants exempted from any and all requirements of course.
posted by srboisvert at 6:50 AM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've actually given problem 2 to my calculus class before, on an exam. I hope I don't get retroactively punished for anything.

I think the answer to #2 is F(x) = c

F(x1) is less than or equal to F(x2) + (x1-x2)^2

So in the neighborhood of x2, the function must remain at or below a parabolic arc. Therefore F must be flat at x2. Therefore F must be flat everywhere. Therefore F(x)=c
posted by jpdoane at 6:59 AM on October 11, 2011


Nevermind, I see the answers are also included...
posted by jpdoane at 7:00 AM on October 11, 2011


three blind mice: "They only gave those questions to "Jewish students (and other 'undesirables')."

OK. I see that now. Why? Couldn't the State-run university simply refuse to admit Jews on any grounds whatsoever? Why go through this charade of extra-hard math test? If there was an official conspiracy to keep Jews out of the university this seems rather overwrought way of doing it - even for the Soviets.

Perhaps Russian Jews did so well on the standard test that they were overrepresented in the student population. One can understand the University in Moscow wanting to achieve socialist diversity. To achieve such noble goal, it would make sense to give different tests to different groups so that in the end you got the best of each group and the student population reflected the national demographics and not just something unimportant like raw ability. How could this be unfair?
"

Seriously?

Did you know that the poll tax laws were not at all designed to prevent the poor from voting? So long as you had the money, both rich and poor could vote!

Did you know that the Republicans' current voter fraud campaign is not at all designed to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters? So long as you have the sort of ID that any gun toting or car driving American needs, you can vote, so where's the problem?

Open discrimination always eventually fails, because people can point to it directly and few want to openly admit to it. But when you can, without any effort, put in a set of restrictions which allow the discrimination while appearing entirely above board, that's when discrimination will be most effective.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:19 AM on October 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


Seriously?
Even given Poe's Law, I don't think he was being serious. There aren't very many Stalinists left on the internet. What tipped me off was that he dropped the indefinite article in "to achieve such noble goal" which made me read the whole thing in a hilarious Russian accent.

Also, could someone with knowledge of theoretical computer science tell me whether or not I'm right about this: these problems are NP-complete, or at least something analogous to that?
posted by vogon_poet at 7:22 AM on October 11, 2011


I've written exam problems that had simple solutions (which I could see because I came up with the problem) but that students couldn't easily find the solutions to. But I did that out of incompetence, not out of malice.

(Also, somehow #17, the question of whether log2 3 or log3 5 is larger jumps out as much easier than the others. And yes, I know, no calculators allowed. But it helps that I know about musical logarithms, so it's obvious that log2 3 is around 19/12 and log3 5 is around 28/19.)

Oooh, #21 is also a good Calculus I problem. I'm totally using that.

This question is basically "do you understand what derivatives and integrals actually are".
posted by madcaptenor at 7:48 AM on October 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think there's a somewhat vague insinuation that the problems themselves have qualities that would make them difficult to solve for Jews specifically, which is (of course) not the case. Something like…
Hiram ate 5 shrimp and bacon sandwiches, followed by a glass of milk. How bad does his stomach ache?
  1. A lot
  2. A little
  3. Not at all
  4. Both
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:27 AM on October 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


I got 99 problems, but you'll kvetch from 1.
posted by rh at 9:32 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hiram ate 5 shrimp and bacon sandwiches...

I was once at a Jewish wedding -- kippahs for the men, a rabbi, chupah, the whole nine yards -- where bacon wrapped shrimp was served during the reception.
posted by griphus at 9:34 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


The current UK government is proposing adding a history component to the Residency exam that most Brits already can't pass and a financial bond that the median wage earning Brit couldn't pay.*

I know nothing of this, but I do know that the old 11+ exam (designed to separate children into academic and 'technical' education at age 11) had a class bias. It's hard to find a source - I remember Jean Floud was one detractor of the system - but the questions would centre on things that were likely to be better know to middle-class homes, such as certain foods or music or activities.
posted by mippy at 9:50 AM on October 11, 2011


This question is basically "do you understand what derivatives and integrals actually are".

That's what makes it a good question.
posted by King Bee at 10:06 AM on October 11, 2011


That's what makes it a good question.

I know! The sick thing is that if I were teaching calculus, I'd hesitate to ask it, because I would be greeted with a chorus of students wondering how they could possibly be expected to figure out such a thing.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:56 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


@vogon_poet: no the "difficulty" of these problems have nothing to do with NP-completeness or other "computational hardness" criteria.

Here the qualifier "difficult" is more subjective, and is a comment on the required level of creativeness. In math there is a certain "aesthetics" to the problem-solution relationships, and once you know the trade, you will *feel* (subjective) that most problems with a certain shape inspire solutions that have a similar shape... And the difficulty here is that the solution has a shape that is so remote from the problem's shape that you need insane levels of creativeness to get to them.
posted by knz at 3:20 PM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Holy Fucking Shit.

It's a mathematical version of the literacy tests from the Old South, where white people would get "See Dick Run. Run Dick Run." and black people would get:

"Compose a sonnet. You may not use the letter "e". You have fifteen minutes."
posted by jason's_planet at 6:08 PM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Most US universities simply banned Jews straight through the 1950s, without even a fig leaf of impartiality like this....
posted by miyabo at 7:06 PM on October 11, 2011




The other applicants had mundane questions.

Are there any examples of these available?
posted by ShutterBun at 4:04 AM on October 13, 2011


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