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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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2020 MIT Mystery Hunt

Every year I write about latest MIT Mystery Hunt puzzles that might be appealing to mathematicians. Before diving into mathy puzzles, I would like to mention two special ones:

Unfortunately math wasn’t prominent this year:

  • Food Court—This is a probability puzzle that is surprisingly uninspiring. There is no mystery: the puzzle page contains a list of probability problems of several famous types. But this puzzles can find great use in probability classes.
  • Torsion Twirl—Mixture of dancing and equations. I love it.
  • People Mover—Logical deduction at the first stage.

On the other hand, Nikoli-type puzzles were represented very well:

  • The Ferris of Them All—Several different Nikoli puzzles on a wheel.
  • Toddler Tilt—Not exactly a Nicoli puzzle, but some weird logic on a grid, some music too.
  • The Dollhouse Tour—Not exactly a Nicoli puzzle, but some weird logic on a grid, some pictures too.
  • The Nauseator—The first part of the puzzle is a huge nonogram.
  • Domino Maze—A non-trivial Thinkfun puzzle.
  • Backlot—Finding a path on a grid with a fractal structure.
  • Whale—Variation on Rush Hour.

Some computer sciency puzzles:

Cryptography:

A couple of puzzles with the mathy side hidden:

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SET Tic-Tac-Toe

The academic year is over and my junior PRIMES STEP group finished their paper about a classification of magic SET squares. A magic SET square is a 3 by 3 square of SET cards such that each row, column, and diagonal is a set. See an example below. The paper is posted at the arXiv:2006.04764.

A magic SET square

In addition to classifying the magic SET squares, my students invented the game of SET tic-tac-toe. It is played on nine cards that form a magic SET square. Two players take turns picking a card from the square. The first player who has a set wins.

One might think that this game is the same as tic-tac-toe, as a player wins as soon at they have cards from the same row, column, or diagonal. But if you build a magic SET square, you might notices that each magic SET square contains 12 sets. In addition to rows, columns, and diagonals, there are sets that form broken diagonals. The picture below shows all the sets in a magic SET square.

Sets in magic SET squares

There are more ways to win in this game than in a regular tic-tac-toe game. My students proved that ties are impossible in this game. They also showed, that, if played correctly, the first player always wins.

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Coronavirus and Gender

You probably heard in the news that more men are dying from coronavirus than women. But not in Massachusetts. Here the proportion of women is about 52 percent. Why is this the case? Being a woman, should I be worried that I live in Massachusetts?

We know that coronavirus strikes older people harder than younger ones. Thus, we should take age into account. In the US more boys are born than girls. By the age of 40 the ratio evens out. Starting from 40 there are more women than men. With each next age group, the disparity increases. According to a recent US population report and for ages 85 and over there are about 4.22 million women versus 2.33 men: the proportion is almost 2 to 1.

As the coronavirus targets older people, were it gender-neutral, we would have had way more female deaths than male. This is not the case. So it hits males harder than females. But why are the ratios of female to male deaths different for different countries and states?

One simple explanation is that this is related to life expectancy and the age of the population. The older the population, the bigger the percentage of females. Which in turn increases the proportion of female deaths.

It could also be that Massachusetts has good health care making the average age of dying patients older than the average age for the country. This in turn will increase the proportion of females dying from coronavirus. No, I am not worried about living in Massachusetts.

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Among Mathematicians

I grew up in the USSR, where I was clueless about the race issues in the US. I have now lived in the US for 30 years, and still feel that there are many things about race that I do not understand. As a result, I am afraid to speak about it. I am worried that I’ll say something wrong. Recent events have encouraged me to say something. This is my first piece about race.

I came back to mathematics 10 year ago and started working at MIT. I love it. With some exceptions.

Many mathematicians are introverts or snobs or gender-biased. They are not usually friendly. I often walk down a corridor and people who are coming towards don’t notice me. If I say hello, they might not even reply or raise their eyes. It could be they are thinking about their next great theorem and do not notice me. It could be that I am not faculty and therefore do not deserve their attention. It could be that as a women I am not worth of their hello.

Soon after I started working at MIT, I was reminded of one of the reasons I left academia. It was this unfriendliness. But this time was different. First, I had grown a thicker skin. Second, I was working within a group. People who were working with me were nice to me. It was enough and so I stayed.

With time I adopted the same style: passing people without saying `Hello.’ Mostly I got tired of people not replying to my hello.

One day I was passing this man who, as had happened many times before, purposefully didn’t look at me. I thought my usual thought: another introverted/snobbish/gender-biased mathematician. Then I suddenly stopped in my tracks. My logic was wrong. This guy was Black. The unfriendliness of mathematicians is surely way worse for him than for me. It could be that he is looking at the floor for the same reason I do it: he is afraid that people will ignore his greeting. I failed to think about race deep enough before this realization. What happened next should have happened years earlier.

I took the initiative and the next couple of times I saw him, I said hello. This was all it took—two hellos—to change the whole feeling between us. The guy has a great smile.

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