A Splashy Math Problem

A problem from the 2021 Moscow Math Olympiad went viral on Russian math channels. The author is Dmitry Krekov.

Problem. Does there exist a number A so that for any natural number n, there exists a square of a natural number that differs from the ceiling of An by 2?


I Miss John Conway

Yesterday I stumbled upon a picture of John Conway I completely forgot I had: it was saved in a wrong folder. The photo was taken at the MOVES conference in 2015. There is a third person in the original shot, but I do not remember her. I decided to cut her out as I didn’t know how to contact her for permission to post this photo.

Conway at MOVES conference 2015.


The Anniversary Coin

Konstantin Knop, the world’s top authority on coin-weighing puzzles, suggested the following problem for the 2019 Russian Math Olympiad.

Puzzle. Eight out of sixteen coins are heavier than the rest and weigh 11 grams each. The other eight coins weigh 10 grams each. We do not know which coin is which, but one coin is conspicuously marked as an “Anniversary” coin. Can you figure out whether the Anniversary coin is heavier or lighter using a balance scale at most three times?


Discover the Rule

Found the following cute puzzle on Facebook.

Puzzle. Discover the rule governing the following sequence to find the next term of the sequence: 8, 3, 4, 9, 3, 9, 8, 2, 4, 3.


Build an All-red Cube

This is one of my favorite problems given at the 2017 Moscow Olympiad to grades 6 and 7. It was suggested by one of my favorite problem writers: Alexander Shapovalov.

Problem. We are given eight unit cubes. The third of the total number of their faces are blue, and the rest are red. We build a large cube out of these cubes so that exactly the third of the unit cube’s visible faces are red. Prove that you can use these cubes to build a large cube whose faces are entirely red.


Penney’s Game and Groups

For the last year, I’ve been obsessed with Penney’s game. In this game, Alice picks a string of coin tosses, say HHH for three heads. After that, Bob picks his string of tosses of the same lengths, say HTH. Then they toss a fair coin. The person whose string shows up first wins. For example, if the tosses are THTTHHH, then Alice wins after the seventh toss. For these particular choices, Bob wins with probability 3/5.

With my PRIMES student, Sean Li, we looked at this game and asked a different question. Suppose Alice picks a pattern of three tosses in a row that are the same. Suppose after that, Bob chooses a pattern of three alternating tosses. Then they toss a fair coin. Alice is hoping for HHH or TTT, while Bob is hoping for HTH or THT. The person whose pattern shows up first wins. For example, if the tosses are THTTHHH, then Bob wins after the third toss. For these particular choices, Bob wins with probability 1/2.

In this example, what actually happens. We assume that the group of two elements acts on the alphabet of two letters. The group’s non-identity element swaps letters H and T. We assume that two strings are equivalent if they belong to the same equivalency class under the group action. We call such an equivalency class a pattern.

In the new game we invented, we have an alphabet of any size and any group acting on the alphabet. Then Alice and Bob pick their patterns. After that, they play the Penney’s game on these patterns. The answers to all the relevant questions are in our paper, The Penney’s Game with Group Action, posted at the math.CO arxiv 2009.06080.


Confirming the Labels of Coins in One Weighing

I wrote a paper Confirming the Labels of Coins in One Weighing together with my PRIMES STEP students Isha Agarwal, Paul Braverman, Patrick Chen, William Du, Kaylee Ji, Akhil Kammila, Shane Lee, Alicia Li, Anish Mudide, Jeffrey Shi, Maya Smith, and Isabel Tu. The paper is available at math.HO arxiv:2006.16797. Below my students describe what happens in the paper in their own words.

Tragedy has struck in an iCOINic land known as COINnecticut. One day, while everyone was minding their own business, the vault door of the bank was found to have been forcefully opened. COINcerns spread amongst the COINmoners that someone had tampered with their n sacred COINtainers of coins! The COINtainers are labeled with the integers 1 through n, which usually describe the weight of each of the countless coins inside that corresponding COINtainer. For example, the COINtainer labeled 1 should only COINtain coins that weigh 1 gram, the COINtainer labeled 2 should only COINtain coins that weigh 2 gram, and so on, you get the COINcept.

The acCOINtants COINclude that someone may have switched around the labels on the COINtainers. To resolve this COINplication, aka to check if the labels have been tampered with, they bought a balance scale for a microsCOINpic amount of money. However, they can only use the scale to COINduct one weighing as the angry COINmoners are impatient and wish to withdraw their money ASAP.

The COINfused acCOINtants COINvinced 11 COINspicuous students from Boston’s COINmunity to help them. With their COINbined efforts, they COINcluded that indeed, no matter how many COINtainers there are, their labels can be COINfirmed as correct or incorrect with just one weighing! Unfortunately, sometimes, such a weighing requires the use of many coins or coins with a large COINbined weight, which could potentially break the scale. Seeing this COINundrum, the students wished to be eCOINomical and find the least amount of coins or weight they need to place on the scale.

The acCOINtants and the 11 students COINtinued examining the nature of these weighings and discovered patterns that occur within them. They COINfined their research to special weighings they called downhill. They COINfirmed the effectiveness of such weighings to solve the problem at hand. The students estimated the weight and the number of coins, thus COINpleting their task.


The Blended Game

My PRIMES STEP students invented several variations of Penney’s game. We posted a paper about these new games at math.HO arxiv:2006.13002.

In Penney’s game, Alice selects a string of coin-flip outcomes of length n. Then Bob selects another string of outcomes of the same length. For example, Alice chooses HHT, and Bob chooses THH. Then a fair coin is tossed until Alice’s or Bob’s string appears. The player whose string appears first wins. In our example, Bob has a greater probability of winning, namely, 3/4. If the first two flips are HH, then Alice wins; otherwise, Bob wins.

The reader can check that HHT beats HTT with 2 to 1 odds. Thus, the game contains a non-transitive cycle it is famous for: THH beats HHT beats HTT beats TTH beats THH.

I already wrote about the No-Flippancy game that my students invented. It starts with Alice and Bob choosing different strings of tosses of the same length.

However, in the No-Flippancy game, they don’t flip a coin but select a flip outcome deterministically according to the following rule: Let in be the maximal length of a suffix in the sequence of “flips” that coincides with a prefix of the current player’s string. The player then selects the element of their string with index i + 1 as the next “flip.” Alice goes first, and whoever’s string appears first in the sequence of choices wins.

My favorite game among the invented games is the Blended game, which mixes the No-Flippancy game and Penney’s game.

In the game, they sometimes flip a coin and sometimes don’t. Alice and Bob choose their strings as in Penney’s game and the No-Flippancy game. Before each coin flip, they decide what they want by the rule of the No-Flippancy game above. If they want the same outcome, they get it without flipping a coin. If they want different outcomes, they flip a coin. Whoever’s string appears first in the sequence of `flips’ wins.

For example, suppose Alice selects HHT, and Bob selects THH. Then Alice wants H and Bob wants T, so they flip a coin. If the flip is T, then they both want Hs, and Bob wins. If the first flip is H, they want different things again. I leave it to the reader to see that Bob wins with probability 3/4. For this particular choice of strings, the odds are the same as in Penney’s game, but they are not always the same.

This game has a lot of interesting properties. For example, similar to Penney’s game, it has a non-transitive cycle of choices. Surprisingly, the cycle is of length 6: THH beats HHT beats THT beats HTT beats TTH beast HTH beat THH.


Monetizing My Blog

I spend a lot of time working on my blog, and I used to think it would be nice to get some money out of it.

Years ago I got two emails from different ad agencies at the same time. They wanted to place ads at particular essays for $50 a year. I decided to give them a try.

My first correspondent wanted a link on my “Does Alcohol in Teens Lead to Adult Woes?” essay, connecting to a website offering help to alcoholics. I agreed. But when I read the actual text, I couldn’t stop laughing. The text they wanted to use was, “Many studies have already claimed that teenage alcoholism could lead to more problems later in life.” How ironic! This ad would follow my essay explaining that one of the studies is completely bogus. I rejected them.

The second agency wanted an ad accompanying the essay “Subtraction Problems, Russian Style.” I placed it. They wrote to me (and I reproduce it with all of their errors intact):

I really appreciate your efforts on this. As I checked the text link, I have seen that the text link has been label as “Sponsor ad”. Kindly omit or delete the word “Sponor ad:” or you may changed it to “Recommended site or Relevant Site” but I would love to prefer the text link be seen as natural meaning no labeled inserted on it.

They wanted me to pretend that I recommend their product. I was naive enough to think that I was selling space on my page, but what they really wanted was for me to lie that I like their product.

Before this experiment, I hoped to find some honest ads for my blog. After this experiment, I realized how much stupidity and falsehood are involved. Since then, I ignore all offers of ads that come my way. That’s why my blog is ad-free.


The No-Flippancy Game

My STEP students invented a coin-flipping game that doesn’t require a coin. It is called The No-Flippancy Game.

Alice and Bob choose distinct strings of length n consisting of the letters H (for heads) and T (for tails). The two players alternate selecting the outcome of the next “flip” to add to the sequence by the rule below.

The “flip” rule: Let i < n be the maximal length of a suffix of the sequence of chosen outcomes that coincides with a prefix of the current player’s string. The player then selects the element of their string with index i + 1 as the next term in the sequence.

Alice goes first, and whoever’s string appears first in the sequence of choices wins. In layman terms, the game rules mean that the players are not strategizing, but rather greedily finishing their strings.

Suppose n = 2 and Alice chose HH. If Bob chooses HT, then Bob wins. Alice has to choose H for the first flip. Then Bob chooses T and wins. On the other hand, if Bob chooses TT for his string, the game becomes infinite. On her turn, Alice always chooses H, while on his turn Bob always chooses T. The game outcome is an alternating string HTHTHT… and no one wins.

Suppose n = 4, Alice chooses HHTT, and Bob chooses THHH. The game proceeds as HTHHTHHH, at which point Bob wins.

This game is very interesting. The outcome depends on how Alice’s and Bob’s chosen strings overlap with each other. We wrote a paper about this game, which is available at math.CO arXiv:2006.09588.