Archive for the ‘Books and Movies Reviews’ Category.

Balls in Boxes

I stumbled upon a cute puzzle on Facebook which originally came from a new book, Creative Puzzles to Ignite Your Mind by Shyam Sunder Gupta.

Puzzle. We have four identical boxes. One of the boxes contains three black balls (BBB), another box has two black and one white balls (BBW), the third box has one black and two white balls (BWW), and the last box has three white balls (WWW). Four labels, BBB, BBW, BWW, and WWW, are put on the boxes, one per box. As is often the case in such puzzles, none of the labels match the contents, and this fact is common knowledge. Four sages get one box each. Each sage sees his label but doesn’t know the other’s labels. Without looking in the box, each sage is asked to take out two balls and guess the color of the third ball. All the sages are in the same room and can hear each other and see the colors of the ball that are taken out.

  • The first sage takes out two black balls and says, “I know the color of the third ball.”
  • The second sage takes out one black and one white ball and says, “I know the color of the third ball.”
  • The third sage takes out two white balls and says, “I don’t know the color of the third ball.”
  • The fourth sage says, without taking out any balls, “I know the color of all the balls in my box and also the content of all the other boxes.”

Can you figure out what’s in the boxes?


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Towers

I got immediately attracted to the puzzle Oleg Polubasov recently posted on Facebook.

Puzzle. A rectangular clearing in a forest is an N-by-M grid, and some of the cells contain a tower. There are no towers in the cells that neighbor the forest. A tower protects its own cell completely and parts of the eight neighboring cells at a depth of half of a cell. Here by neighbors, we mean the cells horizontally, vertically, and diagonally adjacent to the given cell. In particular, if each cell is one square unit, a tower protects four square units. The protected area forms a square with borders that lie in between the grid lines. A tsar knows the towers’ locations and wants to calculate the protected area. Prove that the following formula gives the answer: the number of 2-by-2 subgrids that contain at least 1 tower.

The Inhabited Island

I like this puzzle because it has an elegant solution. But there is more. The puzzle reminds me of one of my favorite novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: The Inhabited Island, also known as Prisoners of Power. This is a science fiction novel where Max Kammerer, a space explorer, ends up on a planet with desolate people who, twice daily, experience sudden bouts of enthusiasm and allegiance to the government. Later, it becomes clear that the love for the rulers comes from towers that broadcast mind-control signals suppressing critical thinking and making people prone to believe propaganda.

The novel was written in 1969 but accurately describes the modern Russian propaganda machine. It appears that there is no need for a secret signal. Just synchronized propaganda on government-controlled TV turns off people’s brains.

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The Raven’s Hat

Raven's Hat book cover

I agreed to review the book, The Raven’s Hat, because of the hats. I love hat puzzles. When I give them to my students, I bring hats to class to reenact the solutions.

The book contains eight awesome puzzles as well as ideas for playing with them. I both loved and hated this book. I loved it because it is great, and hated it because it isn’t perfect. Let me start with three places I didn’t like.

Consider a famous hat puzzle when there are hats of N colors. The sages are in a line, and hats are put on their heads. As usual, they are not allowed to give each other signals. Each of them has to announce their hat’s color, and they want to minimize the number of mistakes.

The big idea is to number the colors. The book suggests that the last sage in line calculates the total number of colors they see modulo N and announces the result to the rest. Then the others, starting from the end of the line, one by one, can calculate and name their hat colors. With this strategy, only the last sage in line might be mistaken.

This is a correct solution, but this is the first place I didn’t like. I prefer a different strategy, where everyone assumes that the total sum of the hat colors is 0 modulo N. In this case, every sage makes the same calculation: each sage sums up everything they see or hear and subtract the result from 0 modulo N. This solution is more elegant, since all the sages follow the same rule.

Then the book extends the same puzzle to an infinite number of sages. My second point of contention is that the authors think that, in this case, two sages might be mistaken. No. The answer is still the same, there is a strategy where not more than one sage is mistaken. See my blog post for the solution.

My third pet peeve happened when the authors introduced ballroom dancing in the puzzle on picture hanging. What is the connection between picture hanging and ballroom dancing? I’ll keep the book’s secret. My beef is with how the roles in ballroom dancing are described. Ballroom dancing is usually danced in pairs with asymmetric roles, which, in the past, were designated for males and females. Gender doesn’t play such a big role anymore; anyone can dance any role.

The authors are afraid to be politically incorrect by calling the dancers male and female. Instead, they say that the dancers dance male and female parts. Though formally, this choice of words might be politically correct, it still sounds awkward and draws attention to gender. If the authors ever talked to any person who has ever danced, they would have known that there is a much simpler way to describe dance roles. The dancers are divided into leaders and followers.

Did I ever tell you that reviewing my students’ writing is part of my job? So I am good at it and like critiquing other people’s writing. Now that my complaints are out, the issues with the book are actually minor.

The book is great. I even bought a second inflatable globe because of this book. The game, described in the book, is to rotate two globes randomly and then find a point on the globes in the same relative position towards the center. The game helped me teach my students that any movement of a sphere is a rotation.

My main goal in this post is to describe the only puzzle in the book that I haven’t seen before.

Puzzle. In a group of opera singers, there are two stars who are either friends or enemies. Surprisingly, only the host, who is not an opera singer, knows who the stars are and the nature of their relationship (the stars do not know that they are stars and whether or not they are friends). The group’s common goal is to identify the stars and to determine whether they are friends or enemies. To do so, they send a few of the singers to sing opera on a stage, which is divided into two halves: left and right. During the opera, the singers do not move between the halves. After the opera is over, the host classifies the opera. If there were no stars or only one star on stage, he classifies it as “neutral”. If both stars were on stage, the opera is a big success or a disaster. If both stars are friends and sing on the same half of the stage, or if they are enemies and sing on different halves, then the opera is a big success. Otherwise, it is a disaster.
What is the best strategy for a group of five singers to determine who are the stars and what is their relationship? What is the smallest number of operas they have to sing to guarantee that they can figure everything out?

It is weird that two people do not know whether they are friends. But sacrifices are needed for mathematics. I am excited that there is a nontrivial puzzle related to information theory, and it is ternary based. All other such puzzles I know are about weighing coins on a balance scale. I wrote too many papers about coin weighing. Now I can switch to opera singers with passionate relationships, secret from themselves.


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A Dingo Ate My Math Book

A dingo ate my math book

What do you give a mathematician who likes only mathematics if you want to expand her geographical horizon? I just got such a gift: A math book that made me feel that I was in Australia. The book, A Dingo Ate My Math Book: Mathematics from Down Under, written by Burkard Polster and Marty Ross, has lovely essays, nice pictures, and a strong Australian flavor.


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Puzzle Ninja

Puzze Ninja by Alex Bellos

Alex Bellos sent me his new book Puzzle Ninja: Pit Your Wits Against The Japanese Puzzle Masters. What has he done to me? I opened the book and couldn’t close it until I solved all the puzzles.

This is a fantastic book. There are many varieties of puzzles, including some types that I’ve never seen before. Also, the beautifully designed puzzles are great. Often puzzles of the same type target different solving ideas or have varied cool themes.

This book is more than a bunch of puzzles; it also contains poetic stories about puzzle histories and Japanese puzzle designers. Fantastic puzzles together with a human touch: this might be my favorite puzzle book.

Wolf and Sheep Slitherlink Puzzle 1

I present two puzzles from the book. The puzzle type is called Wolf and Sheep Slitherlink. The Slitherlink is a famous puzzle type with the goal of connecting some of the neighboring dots into a single non-self-intersecting loop. A number inside a small square cell indicates how many sides of the square are part of the loop. Wolf and Sheep Slitherlink is a variation of Slitherlink in which all sheep should be kept inside the fence (loop) and all the wolves outside.

Ignore the numbers in the title as they just indicate the order number of Wolf and Sheep Slitherlink puzzles in the book. The number of ninja heads shows the level of difficulty. (The hardest puzzles in the book have four heads.) The difficulty is followed by the name of the puzzle master who designed the puzzle.

The first puzzle above is slightly easier than the second. I like the themes of these two puzzles. In the first one, only one cell—lonely wolf—marks the relationship to the fence. In the second one, the wolf in the center—who needs to be outside the fence—is surrounded by a circle of sheep who are in turn surrounded by a circle of wolves.

Wolf and Sheep Slitherlink Puzzle 2

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The Best Writing on Mathematics 2016

Best Writing on Mathematics 2016The Best Writing on Mathematics 2016 is out. I am happy that my paper The Pioneering Role of the Sierpinski Gasket is included. The paper is written jointly with my high-school students Eric Nie and Alok Puranik as our PRIMES-2014 project.

At the end of the book there is a short list of notable writings that were considered but didn’t make it. The “short” list is actually a dozen pages long. And it includes two more papers of mine:

To continue bragging, I want to mention that my paper A Line of Sages was on the short list for 2015 volume. And my paper Conway’s Wizards was included in the 2014 volume.Share:Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Which One Doesn’t Belong?

Which One Doesn't Belong?

I like Odd-One-Out puzzles that are ambiguous. That is why I bought the book Which One Doesn’t Belong? Look at the cover: which is the odd one out? The book doesn’t include answers, but it has nine more examples in each of which there are several possible odd-one-outs.Share:Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Can You Solve My Problems?

Melanoma StatsAlex Bellos wrote a puzzle book Can You Solve My Problems? Ingenious, Perplexing, and Totally Satisfying Math and Logic Puzzles The book contains a mixture of famous puzzles and their solutions. Some of the puzzles are not mathematical in the strictest sense, but still have an appeal for mathematicians. For example, which integer comes up first when you alphabetize all the integers up to a quadrillion?

Recognize the puzzle on that book cover? You’re right! That’s my Odd One Out puzzle. Doesn’t it look great in lights on that billboard in London?

Mine isn’t the only terrific puzzle in the book. In fact, one of the puzzles got my special attention as it is related to our current PRIMES polymath project. Here it is:

A Sticky Problem. Dick has a stick. He saws it in two. If the cut is made [uniformly] at random anywhere along the stick, what is the length, on average, of the smaller part?

Odd One Out Billboard

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Deserve to Steal

The Honest Truht about DishonestyI had a distant relative Alla, who was brought up by a single mother, who died in a car crash when the girl was in her early teens. Alla was becoming a sweet and pleasant teenager; she was taken in by her aunt after the accident. Very soon the aunt started complaining that Alla was turning into a cheater and a thief. The aunt found a therapist for Alla, who explained that Alla was stealing for a reason. Because the world had unfairly stolen her mother, Alla felt entitled to compensation in the form of jewelry, money, and other luxuries.

I was reminded of Alla’s story when I was reading The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely. Ariely discusses a wide range of reasons why honest people cheat. But to me he neglects to look at the most prominent reason. Often honest people cheat when they feel justified and entitled to do so.

One of Ariely’s experiments went like this. One group was asked to write a text avoiding letters x and z. The other group was asked to write a text avoiding letters a and n. The second task is way more difficult and requires more energy. After the tasks were completed the participants were given a test in which they had a chance to cheat. For this experiment, the participants were compensated financially according to the number of questions they solved. Not surprisingly, the second group cheated more. The book concludes that when people are tired, their guard goes down and they cheat more. I do not argue with this conclusion, but I think another reason also contributes to cheating. Have you ever tried to write a text without using the letters a and n? I did:

I should try it here. But this is so difficult. I give up.

My son, Alexey, was way better than me:

First, God brought forth the sky with the world. The world existed without form. Gloom covered the deep. The Spirit of God hovered over the fluids. Quoth God: let there be light. Thus light existed.

Fun as it is, this is cruel and unusual punishment. The request is more difficult than most people expect at an experiment. It could be that participants cheated not only because their capacity for honesty was depleted, but because they felt entitled to more money because the challenge was so difficult.

In another experiment, the participants received a high-fashion brand of sunglasses before the test. Some of them were told that the sunglasses were a cheap imitation of the luxury brand (when they really were not). This group cheated more than the group who thought that they got a real thing. The book concludes that wearing fake sunglasses makes people feel that they themselves are fake and so they care less about their honor. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t explain in detail what was actually promised. It looks like the participants were promised high-fashion sunglasses. In this case, the fake group would have felt deceived and might have felt more justified to cheat.

Dear Dan Ariely: May I suggest the following experiment. Invite people and promise them some money for a 15-minute task. Pay them the promised minimum and give them a test through which they can earn more. Construct it so that they can earn a lot more if they cheat. Then make the non-control group wait for half an hour. If I were in this group, I would have felt that I am owed for the total of 45 minutes—three times more than what I was promised. I do not know if I would cheat or just leave, but I wouldn’t be surprised that in this group people would cheat more than in the control group.Share:Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Really Big Numbers

 

Really Big NumbersI received a book Really Big Numbers by Richard Schwartz for review. I was supposed to write the review a long time ago, but I’ve been procrastinating. Usually, if I like a book, I write a review very fast. If I hate a book, I do not write a review at all. With this book I developed a love-hate relationship.

Let me start with love. I enjoyed reading the first 80 pages. The pictures are great, and some explanations are very well thought out. Plus, I haven’t thought much about really big numbers, so the book helped me understand them. I was impressed with how this book treats very difficult ideas with simple explanations and illuminating images. I was captivated by it.

Now to hate. I had two problems with this book: one pedagogical and the other mathematical.

The pedagogical issue. The beginning of the book is suitable for small children. Most of the book is suitable for advanced middle-schoolers who like mathematics. The last part is very advanced. Is it a good idea to show children a book that looks like a children’s book, but which soon becomes totally out of their reach? Richard Schwartz understands it and says many times that pieces of this book might be read several years apart. Several years? What child is ready to wait several years to finish a book? How would children feel about the book and about numbers when no matter how hard they try, they cannot understand the end of the book?

As a reviewer, I can’t recommend the full book for kids who are not ready to grasp the notion of the Ackermann function or arrow notation. Even if the child is capable of understanding these ideas, there are mathematical issues that would prevent me from recommending it.

The mathematical issue. Let me start by explaining the notion of plex. We call an n-plex a number that is equal to 10n. For example, 2-plex means 102 which is 100, and 10-plex means 1010. The fun part starts when we plex plexes. The number n-plexplex means 10 to the power n-plex which is 10(1010). We can continue plexing: n-plexplexplex means 10 to the power n-plexplex. When you are hunting for really big numbers, it is easier to write the number of plexes rather than writing plexes after plexes. Richard Schwartz introduces the following notation to help visualize the whole thing. He puts numbers in a square. Number n in a square means 1-plexed n times. For example, 2 inside a square means 1010. Ten inside a square is 1-plexplexplexplexplexplexplexplexplexplex.

We can start nesting squares. For example, 2 inside a square means 1-plex-plex or 1010. Let’s add a square around it: 2 inside two squares means 1010 inside a square, which equals 1 plexed 1010 times. To denote 10 nested in n squares Richard Schwartz uses the next symbol: n inside a pentagon. For example, 1 inside a pentagon is 10 inside a square. I wrote this number in the previous paragraph: it is 1-plexplexplexplexplexplexplexplexplexplex. Similarly, n inside a hexagon means 10 inside n nested pentagons. We can continue this forever: n inside a k-gon is 10 inside k nested (k-1)-gons.

What bothers me is why a square? Why not a triangle? If we adopt this scheme, what is the meaning of a number in a triangle? Let’s try to unravel this. Following Richard Schwartz’s notation we get that n inside a square is the same as 10 inside n nested triangles. What do we do n times with 10 to get to 1 plexed n times? 1-plexed n times is 10 plexed n-1 times. There is a disconnect in notation here. For example, 10 in two nested triangles should mean 2 inside a square that is 1010. 10 inside one triangle should mean 1 inside a square which is 10. This doesn’t make any sense.

I started googling around and discovered the Steinhaus–Moser notation. In this notation a number n in a triangle means nn. A number n in a square means the number n inside n nested triangles. A number n in a pentagon means the number n inside n nested squares. And so on. This makes total sense to me. If we move down the number of sides, we can say that the number n inside a 2-gon means n times n and the number n inside a 1-gon means n. This is perfect.

Schwartz changed the existing notation in two places. First he made everything about 10. This might not be such a bad idea except his 10 inside a square doesn’t equal 10 inside a square in Steinhaus–Moser notation. In Steinhaus–Moser notation 10 inside a square means 10 plexed 10 times. The author removed one of the plexes. He made 10 inside the square to mean 1 plexed 10 times, and as a result it stopped working.

Even though the first 83 pages are delightful and the pictures are terrific, the notation doesn’t work. What a pity.Share:Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail