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A friend of mine recently asked me for some suggestions for games or other activities for children that would help promote quantitative reasoning or mathematical skills, while remaining fun to play (i.e. more than just homework-type questions poorly disguised in game form).    The initial question was focused on computer games (and specifically, on iPhone apps), but I think the broader question would also be of interest.

I myself have not seriously played these sorts of games for years, so I could only come up with a few examples immediately: the game “Planarity“, and the game “Factory Balls” (and two sequels).   (Edit: Rubik’s cube and its countless cousins presumably qualify also, due to their implicit use of group theory.)  I am hopeful though that readers may be able to come up with more suggestions.

There is of course no shortage of “educational” games, computer-based or otherwise, available, but I think what I (and my friend) would be looking for here are games with production values comparable to other, less educational games, and for which the need for mathematical thinking arises naturally in the gameplay rather than being artificially inserted by fiat (e.g. “solve this equation to proceed”).  (Here I interpret “mathematical thinking” loosely, to include not just numerical or algebraic thinking, but also geometric, abstract, logical, probabilistic, etc.)

[Question for MathOverflow experts: would this type of question be suitable for crossposting there?   The requirement that such questions be "research-level" seems to suggest not.]

This will be a more frivolous post than usual, in part due to the holiday season.

I recently happened across the following video, which exploits a simple rhetorical trick that I had not seen before:

If nothing else, it’s a convincing (albeit unsubtle) demonstration that the English language is non-commutative (or perhaps non-associative); a linguistic analogue of the swindle, if you will.

Of course, the trick relies heavily on sentence fragments that negate or compare; I wonder if it is possible to achieve a comparable effect without using such fragments.

A related trick which I have seen (though I cannot recall any explicit examples right now; perhaps some readers know of some?) is to set up the verses of a song so that the last verse is identical to the first, but now has a completely distinct meaning (e.g. an ironic interpretation rather than a literal one) due to the context of the preceding verses.  The ultimate challenge would be to set up a Möbius song, in which each iteration of the song completely reverses the meaning of the next iterate (cf. this xkcd strip), but this may be beyond the capability of the English language.

On a related note: when I was a graduate student in Princeton, I recall John Conway (and another author whose name I forget) producing another light-hearted demonstration that the English language was highly non-commutative, by showing that if one takes the free group with 26 generators a,b,\ldots,z and quotients out by all relations given by anagrams (e.g. cat=act) then the resulting group was commutative.    Unfortunately I was not able to locate this recreational mathematics paper of Conway (which also treated the French language, if I recall correctly); perhaps one of the readers knows of it?

I was recently at an international airport, trying to get from one end of a very long terminal to another.  It inspired in me the following simple maths puzzle, which I thought I would share here:

Suppose you are trying to get from one end A of a terminal to the other end B.  (For simplicity, assume the terminal is a one-dimensional line segment.)  Some portions of the terminal have moving walkways (in both directions); other portions do not.  Your walking speed is a constant v, but while on a walkway, it is boosted by the speed u of the walkway for a net speed of v+u.  (Obviously, given a choice, one would only take those walkways that are going in the direction one wishes to travel in.)  Your objective is to get from A to B in the shortest time possible.

  1. Suppose you need to pause for some period of time, say to tie your shoe.  Is it more efficient to do so while on a walkway, or off the walkway?  Assume the period of time required is the same in both cases.
  2. Suppose you have a limited amount of energy available to run and increase your speed to a higher quantity v' (or v'+u, if you are on a walkway).  Is it more efficient to run while on a walkway, or off the walkway?  Assume that the energy expenditure is the same in both cases.
  3. Do the answers to the above questions change if one takes into account the various effects of special relativity?  (This is of course an academic question rather than a practical one.  But presumably it should be the time in the airport frame that one wants to minimise, not time in one’s personal frame.)

It is not too difficult to answer these questions on both a rigorous mathematical level and a physically intuitive level, but ideally one should be able to come up with a satisfying mathematical explanation that also corresponds well with one’s intuition.

[Update, Dec 11: Hints deleted, as they were based on an incorrect calculation of mine.]

Given that there has recently been a lot of discussion on this blog about this logic puzzle, I thought I would make a dedicated post for it (and move all the previous comments to this post). The text here is adapted from an earlier web page of mine from a few years back.

The puzzle has a number of formulations, but I will use this one:

There is an island upon which a tribe resides. The tribe consists of 1000 people, with various eye colours. Yet, their religion forbids them to know their own eye color, or even to discuss the topic; thus, each resident can (and does) see the eye colors of all other residents, but has no way of discovering his or her own (there are no reflective surfaces). If a tribesperson does discover his or her own eye color, then their religion compels them to commit ritual suicide at noon the following day in the village square for all to witness. All the tribespeople are highly logical and devout, and they all know that each other is also highly logical and devout (and they all know that they all know that each other is highly logical and devout, and so forth).

[Added, Feb 15: for the purposes of this logic puzzle, "highly logical" means that any conclusion that can logically deduced from the information and observations available to an islander, will automatically be known to that islander.]

Of the 1000 islanders, it turns out that 100 of them have blue eyes and 900 of them have brown eyes, although the islanders are not initially aware of these statistics (each of them can of course only see 999 of the 1000 tribespeople).

One day, a blue-eyed foreigner visits to the island and wins the complete trust of the tribe.

One evening, he addresses the entire tribe to thank them for their hospitality.

However, not knowing the customs, the foreigner makes the mistake of mentioning eye color in his address, remarking “how unusual it is to see another blue-eyed person like myself in this region of the world”.

What effect, if anything, does this faux pas have on the tribe?

The interesting thing about this puzzle is that there are two quite plausible arguments here, which give opposing conclusions:

[Note: if you have not seen the puzzle before, I recommend thinking about it first before clicking ahead.]

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