Counting Animals

Counting Animals

I heard this story from a Mexican friend, whose great grandfather moved to Northern California long before the land got transferred to United States. Prior to discovery of gold in the hills of Sierra and arrival of 49ers, California was sparsely populated and two Spanish farmers lived in the area currently known as Menlo Park. Juan and Estevan raised avestruz (ostrich), cerdo (pig), ganso (goose) and toro (bulls) in their huge farm.

Life was quite easy and a bit too boring at times. To add spices to their daily routine, Juan invented a new game. Every once in a while, he made all animals go to the small pond to drink water one at a time. When an animal was at the pond, he raised a flag - red for avestruz, green for cerdo, yellow for ganso and blue for toro. Estevan sat far away on top of a redwood tree and marked the colors of flags on a piece of paper. Juan also kept his own notes, and after all animals drank water, they sat together for lunch and compared their marking. On other days, Juan climbed the tree and Estevan took the animals to the ponds. What a silly game, don’t you think? Let me remind you that they were farmers and not chess grand-masters. If they were happy with it, what can we say?


When I was in Mexico, my friend showed me those pieces of papers, which their family saves for generations to remember the lives of their ancestors. It was an amazing feeling, when I sat with the papers, closed my eyes and tried to imagine what life was like in completely desolate ‘Silicon valley’. I even attempted some ‘data science’ on their notes and found a puzzling pattern. Always, the guy on the tree got the correct animal from flag signal 85% of times. Among errors, about 11% of times, he noted the same flag twice. Another 4% of times, he missed the flag altogether, and wrote the wrong color 1% of times.

Here is what I found rather odd. The same pattern continued again and again, no matter whether Juan or Estevan sat on the tree. I have no idea, whether that observation says anything about human nature, Mexican farmers or farms built in redwood forests around Menlo Park. I wish I had a time machine to go back to 1830s and watch those farmers.

Written by M. //