Reading the Comics, July 6, 2016: Another Busy Week Edition


It’s supposed to be the summer vacation. I don’t know why Comic Strip Master Command is so eager to send me stuff. Maybe my standards are too loose. This doesn’t even cover all of last week’s mathematically-themed comics. I’ll need another that I’ve got set for Tuesday. I don’t mind.

Corey Pandolph and Phil Frank and Joe Troise’s The Elderberries rerun for the 3rd features one of my favorite examples of applied probability. The game show Deal or No Deal offered contestants the prize within a suitcase they picked, or a dealer’s offer. The offer would vary up or down as non-selected suitcases were picked, giving the chance for people to second-guess themselves. It also makes a good redemption game. The banker’s offer would typically be less than the expectation value, what you’d get on average from all the available suitcases. But now and then the dealer offered more than the expectation value and I got all ready to yell at the contestants.

This particular strip focuses on a smaller question: can you pick which of the many suitcases held the grand prize? And with the right setup, yes, you can pick it reliably.

Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute for the 3rd uses a bit of arithmetic to support a mind-reading magic trick. The instructions say to start with a number from 1 to 10 and do various bits of arithmetic which lead inevitably to 4. You can prove that for an arbitrary number, or you can just try it for all ten numbers. That’s tedious but not hard and it’ll prove the inevitability of 4 here. There aren’t many countries with names that start with ‘D’; Denmark’s surely the one any American (or European) reader is likeliest to name. But Dominica, the Dominican Republic, and Djibouti would also be answers. (List Of Countries Of The World.com also lists Dhekelia, which I never heard of either.) Anyway, with Denmark forced, ‘E’ almost begs for ‘elephant’. I suppose ’emu’ would do too, or ‘echidna’. And ‘elephant’ almost forces ‘grey’ for a color, although ‘white’ would be plausible too. A magician has to know how things like this work.

Werner Wejp-Olsen’s feature Inspector Danger’s Crime Quiz for the 4th features a mathematician as victim of the day’s puzzle murder. I admit I’m skeptical of deathbed identifications of murderers like this, but it would spoil a lot of puzzle mysteries if we disallowed them. (Does anyone know how often a deathbed identification actually happens?) I can’t make the alleged answer make any sense to me. Danger of the trade in murder puzzles.

Kris Straub’s Starship for the 4th uses mathematics as a stand-in for anything that’s hard to study and solve. I’m amused.

Edison Lee tells his grandfather how if the universe is infinitely large, then it's possible there's an exact duplicate to him. This makes his grandfather's head explode. Edison's father says 'I see you've been pondering incomprehensibles again'. Headless grandfather says 'I need a Twinkie.'
John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison lee for the 6th of July, 2016. I’m a little surprised the last panel wasn’t set on a duplicate Earth where things turned out a little differently.

John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison lee for the 6th is about the existentialist dread mathematics can inspire. Suppose there is a chance, within any given volume of space, of Earth being made. Well, it happened at least once, didn’t it? If the universe is vast enough, it seems hard to argue that there wouldn’t be two or three or, really, infinitely many versions of Earth. It’s a chilling thought. But it requires some big suppositions, most importantly that the universe actually is infinite. The observable universe, the one we can ever get a signal from, certainly isn’t. The entire universe including the stuff we can never get to? I don’t know that that’s infinite. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s impossible to say, for good reason. Anyway, I’m not worried about it.

Jim Meddick’s Monty for the 6th is part of a storyline in which Monty is worshipped by tiny aliens who resemble him. They’re a bit nerdy, and calculate before they understand the relevant units. It’s a common mistake. Understand the problem before you start calculating.

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Reading the Comics, March 14, 2016: Pi Day Comics Event


Comic Strip Master Command had the regular pace of mathematically-themed comic strips the last few days. But it remembered what the 14th would be. You’ll see that when we get there.

Ray Billingsley’s Curtis for the 11th of March is a student-resists-the-word-problem joke. But it’s a more interesting word problem than usual. It’s your classic problem of two trains meeting, but rather than ask when they’ll meet it asks where. It’s just an extra little step once the time of meeting is made, but that’s all right by me. Anything to freshen the scenario up.

'Please answer this math question, Mr Wilkins. John is traveling east from San Francisco on a train at a speed of 80 miles per hour. Tom is going to that same meeting from New York, headed west, on a train traveling 100 miles per hour. In what state will they meet?' 'Couldn't they just Skype?'
Ray Billingsley’s Curtis for the 11th of March, 2016. I am curious what the path of the rail line is.

Tony Carrillo’s F Minus for the 11th was apparently our Venn Diagram joke for the week. I’m amused.

Mason Mastroianni, Mick Mastroianni, and Perri Hart’s B.C. for the 12th of March name-drops statisticians. Statisticians are almost expected to produce interesting pictures of their results. It is the field that gave us bar charts, pie charts, scatter plots, and many more. Statistics is, in part, about understanding a complicated set of data with a few numbers. It’s also about turning those numbers into recognizable pictures, all in the hope of finding meaning in a confusing world (ours).

Brian Anderson’s Dog Eat Doug for the 13th of March uses walls full of mathematical scrawl as signifier for “stuff thought deeply about’. I don’t recognize any of the symbols specifically, although some of them look plausibly like calculus. I would not be surprised if Anderson had copied equations from a book on string theory. I’d do it to tell this joke.

And then came the 14th of March. That gave us a bounty of Pi Day comics. Among them:

'Happy Pi Day.' 'Mmm. I love apple pie.' 'Pi day, not Pie Day. Pi ... you know ... 3.14 ... March 14th. Get it?' 'Today is a pie-eating holiday?' 'Sort of. They do celebrate it with pie, but it's mostly about pi.' 'I don't understand what that kid says half the time.'
John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee for the 14th of March, 2016. The strip is like this a lot.

John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee trusts that the name of the day is wordplay enough.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater is also a wordplay joke, although it’s a bit more advanced.

Tim Rickard’s Brewster Rockit fuses the pun with one of its running, or at least rolling, gags.

Bill Whitehead’s Free Range makes an urban legend out of the obsessive calculation of digits of π.

And Missy Meyer’s informational panel cartoon Holiday Doodles mentions that besides “National” Pi Day it was also “National” Potato Chip Day, “National” Children’s Craft Day, and “International” Ask A Question Day. My question: for the first three days, which nation?

Edited To Add: And I forgot to mention, after noting to myself that I ought to mention it. The Price Is Right (the United States edition) hopped onto the Pi Day fuss. It used the day as a thematic link for its Showcase prize packages, noting how you could work out π from the circumference of your new bicycles, or how π was a letter from your vacation destination of Greece, and if you think there weren’t brand-new cars in both Showcases you don’t know the game show well. Did anyone learn anything mathematical from this? I am skeptical. Do people come away thinking mathematics is more fun after this? … Conceivably. At least it was a day fairly free of people declaring they Hate Math and Can Never Do It.

Reading the Comics, August 29, 2015: Unthemed Edition


I can’t think of any particular thematic link through the past week’s mathematical comic strips. This happens sometimes. I’ll make do. They’re all Gocomics.com strips this time around, too, so I haven’t included the strips. The URLs ought to be reasonably stable.

J C Duffy’s Lug Nuts (August 23) is a cute illustration of the first, second, third, and fourth dimensions. The wall-of-text might be a bit off-putting, especially the last panel. It’s worth the reading. Indeed, you almost don’t need the cartoon if you read the text.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am (August 24) is an explanation of pie charts. This might be the best stilly joke of the week. I may just be an easy touch for a pie-in-the-face.

Charlie Podrebarac’s Cow Town (August 26) is about the first day of mathematics camp. It’s also every graduate students’ thesis defense anxiety dream. The zero with a slash through it popping out of Jim Smith’s mouth is known as the null sign. That comes to us from set theory, where it describes “a set that has no elements”. Null sets have many interesting properties considering they haven’t got any things. And that’s important for set theory. The symbol was introduced to mathematics in 1939 by Nicholas Bourbaki, the renowned mathematician who never existed. He was important to the course of 20th century mathematics.

Eric the Circle (August 26), this one by ‘Arys’, is a Venn diagram joke. It makes me realize the Eric the Circle project does less with Venn diagrams than I expected.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (August 26) talks of a Akira Haraguchi. If we believe this, then, in 2006 he recited 111,700 digits of pi from memory. It’s an impressive stunt and one that makes me wonder who did the checking that he got them all right. The fact-checkers never get their names in Graziano’s Ripley’s.

Mark Parisi’s Off The Mark (August 27, rerun from 1987) mentions Monty Hall. This is worth mentioning in these parts mostly as a matter of courtesy. The Monty Hall Problem is a fine and imagination-catching probability question. It represents a scenario that never happened on the game show Let’s Make A Deal, though.

Jeff Stahler’s Moderately Confused (August 28) is a word problem joke. I do wonder if the presence of battery percentage indicators on electronic devices has helped people get a better feeling for percentages. I suppose only vaguely. The devices can be too strangely nonlinear to relate percentages of charge to anything like device lifespan. I’m thinking here of my cell phone, which will sit in my messenger bag for three weeks dropping slowly from 100% to 50%, and then die for want of electrons after thirty minutes of talking with my father. I imagine you have similar experiences, not necessarily with my father.

Thom Bluemel’s Birdbrains (August 29) is a caveman-mathematics joke. This one’s based on calendars, which have always been mathematical puzzles.

Reading the Comics, June 20, 2015: Blatantly Padded Edition, Part 1


I confess. I’m padding my post count with the end-of-the-week roundup of mathematically-themed comic strips. While what I’ve got is a little long for a single post it’s not outrageously long. But I realized that if I split this into two pieces then, given how busy last week was around here, and how I have an A To Z post ready for Monday already, I could put together a string of eight days of posting. And that would look so wonderful in the “fireworks display” of posts that WordPress puts together for its annual statistics report. Please don’t think worse of me for it.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not (June 17) presents the trivia point that Harvard University is older than calculus. That’s fair enough to say, although I don’t think it merits Graziano’s exclamation point. A proper historical discussion of when calculus was invented has to be qualified. It’s a big, fascinating invention; such things don’t have unambiguous origin dates. You can see what are in retrospect obviously the essential ideas of calculus in historical threads weaving through thousands of years and every mathematically-advanced culture. But calculus as we know it, the set of things that you will see in an Introduction To Calculus textbook, got organized into a coherent set of ides that we call that, now, in the late 17th century. Most of its notation took shape by the mid-18th century, especially as Leonhard Euler promoted many of the symbols and much of the notation that we still use today.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not is still a weird attribution even if I can’t think of a better one.

Hector D Cantu and Carlos Castellanos’s Baldo (June 18) reminds us that all you really need to do mathematics well is have a problem which you’re interested in. But what isn’t that true of?

J C Duffy’s The Fusco Brothers (June 18) is about the confusion between what positive and negative mean in test screenings. I’ve written about this before. The use of positive for what is typically bad news, and negative for what is typically good news, seems to trace to statistical studies. The test amounts to an experiment. We measure something in a complicated system, like a body. Is that measurement consistent with what we might normally expect, or is it so far away from normal that it’s implausible that it might be just chance? The “positive” then reflects finding that whatever is measured is unlikely to be that far from normal just by chance.

Larry Wright’s Motley (June 18, rerun from June 18, 1987) uses a bit of science and mathematics as a signifier of intelligence. In the context of a game show, though, “23686 π” is an implausible answer. Unless the question was “what’s the area of a circle with radius 23683?” there’s just no way 2368 would even come up. I suspect “hydromononucleatic acid” isn’t at thing either.

Mark Parisi’s Off The Mark (June 18) is this week’s anthropomorphic numerals joke.

Arnold is sparring with a kangaroo. Told to outsmart him, Arnold recites the Pythagorean Theorem. He gets clobbered.
Bud Grace’s The Piranha Club for the 19th of June, 2015.

Bud Grace’s The Piranha Club (June 19) is another strip to use mathematics as a signifier of intelligence. And, hey, guy punched by a kangaroo, what’s not to like? (In the June 20 strip the kangaroo’s joey emerges from a pouch and punches him too, so I suppose the kangaroo’s female, never mind what the 19th says.)

February 2014’s Mathematics Blog Statistics


And so to the monthly data-tracking report. I’m sad to say that the total number of viewers dropped compared to January, although I have to admit given the way the month went — with only eight posts, one of them a statistics one — I can’t blame folks for not coming around. The number of individual viewers dropped from 498 to 423, and the number of unique visitors collapsed from 283 to 209. But as ever there’s a silver lining: the pages per viewer rose from 1.76 to 2.02, so, I like to think people are finding this more choice.

As usual the country sending me the most readers was the United States (235), with Canada in second (31) and Denmark, surprising to me, in third place (30). I suppose that’s a bit unreasonable on my part, since why shouldn’t Danes be interested in mathematics-themed comic strips, but, I’m used to the United Kingdom being there. Fourth place went to Austria (17) and I was again surprised by fifth place, Singapore (14), but happy to see someone from there reading, as I used to work there and miss the place, especially in the pits of winter. Sending me just a single reader each were: Albania, Argentina, Ecuador, Estonia, Ethiopia, Greece, Hungary, New Zealand, Peru, Saudia Arabia, South Korea, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Greece and South Korea are the only repeats from January 2013.

The most popular articles the past thirty days were:

  1. Reading The Comics, February 1, 2014, my bread-and-butter subject for the blog.
  2. How Many Trapezoids I Can Draw, which will be my immortal legacy.
  3. Reading The Comics, February 11, 2014: Running Out Pi Edition, see above, although now I’m trying out something in putting particular titles on things.
  4. The Liquefaction of Gases, Part I, referring to a real statistical mechanics post by CarnotCycle.
  5. I Know Nothing Of John Venn’s Diagram Work, my confession of ignorance, or at least of casualness in thought, in the use of a valuable tool.

The most interesting search terms bringing people to me the past month were “comics strip about classical and modern physics”, “1,898,600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 in words”, and “how much could a contestant win on the $64.00 question”, which you’d superficially think would be a question you didn’t have to look up. (Of course, in the movie Take It Or Leave It, based on the radio quiz program, the amount of the gran jackpot is raised to a thousand dollars, for dramatic value. This is presumably not what the questioner was looking for.)

The Mathematics Of A Pricing Game


There was a new pricing game that debuted on The Price Is Right for the start of its 42nd season, with a name that’s designed to get my attention: it’s called “Do The Math”. This seems like a dangerous thing to challenge contestants to do since the evidence is that pricing games which depend on doing some arithmetic tend to be challenging (“Grocery Game”, “Bullseye”), or confusing (“The Check Game”), or outright disasters (“Add Em Up”). This one looks likely to be more successful, though.

The setup is this: The contestant is shown two prizes. In the first (and, so far, only) playing of the game this was a 3-D HDTV and a motorcycle. The names of those prizes are put on either side of a monitor made up to look like a green chalkboard. The difference in prize values is shown; in this case, it was $1160, and that’s drawn in the middle of the monitor in Schoolboard Extra-Large font. The contestant has to answer whether the price of the prize listed on the left (here, the 3-D HDTV) plus the cash ($1160) is the price of the prize on the right (the motorcycle), or whether the price of the prize on the left minus the cash is the price of the prize on the right. The contestant makes her or his guess and, if right, wins both prizes and the money.

There’s not really much mathematics involved here. The game is really just a two-prize version of “Most Expensive” (in which the contestant has to say which of three prizes and then it’s right there on the label). I think there’s maybe a bit of educational value in it, though, in that by representing the prices of the two prizes — which are fixed quantities, at least for the duration of taping, and may or may not be known to the contestant — with abstractions it might make people more comfortable with the mathematical use of symbols. x and all the other letters of the English (and Greek) alphabets get called into place to represent quantities that might be fixed, or might not be; and that might be known, or might be unknown; and that we might actually wish to know or might not really care about but need to reference somehow.

That conceptual leap often confuses people, as see any joke about how high school algebra teachers can’t come up with a consistent answer about what x is. This pricing game is a bit away from mathematics classes, but it might yet be a way people could see that the abstraction idea is not as abstract or complicated as they fear.

I suspect, getting away from my flimsy mathematics link, that this should be a successful pricing game, since it looks to be quick and probably not too difficult for players to get. I’m sorry the producers went with a computer monitor for the game’s props, rather than — say — having a model actually write plus or minus, or some other physical prop. Computer screens are boring television; real objects that move are interesting. There are some engagingly apocalyptic reviews of the season premiere over at golden-road.net, a great fan site for The Price Is Right.

My August 2013 Statistics


As promised I’m keeping and publicizing my statistics, as WordPress makes them out, the better I hope to understand what I do well and what the rest is. I’ve had a modest uptick in views from July — 341 to 367 — as well as in unique visitors — 156 to 175 — although this means my views-per-visitor count has dropped from 2.19 to 2.10. That’s still my third-highest views-per-visitor count since WordPress started revealing that data to us.

The most popular articles of the past month were:

  1. Reading the Comics, September 11, 2012 (which I suspect reflects the date turning up high in Google searches, though there are many comics mentioned in it so perhaps it just casts a wide net);
  2. Just Answer 1/e Whenever Anyone Asks This Kind Of Question (part of the thread on the chance of the 1902-built Leap-the-Dips roller coaster having any of its original boards remaining)
  3. Just How Far Is The End Of The World? (the start of a string based on seeing the Sleeping Bear Dunes)
  4. Why I Say 1/e About This Roller Coaster (back to the Leap-the-Dips question)
  5. Augustin-Louis Cauchy’s birthday (a little biographical post which drew some comments because Cauchy was at the center of a really interesting time in mathematics)
  6. Professor Ludwig von Drake Explains Numerical Mathematics (which isn’t one of the top-five pieces this month but is a comic strip, so enjoy)

The countries sending me the most readers were the United States (202), Canada (30), and Denmark (19). Sending me just one each were Argentina, Bangladesh, Estonia, Finland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Viet Nam. Argentina, Estonia, and the Netherlands did the same last month; clearly I’m holding steady. And my readership in Slovenia doubled from last month’s lone reader.

I also learn that the search terms bringing people to me have been, most often, “trapezoid”, “descartes and the fly”, “joseph nebus”, “nebus wordpress”, and “any number the price is right”. I’ve had more entries than I realized mention The Price Is Right and ought to try making them easier for search engines to locate. My trapezoid work meanwhile — on their area and the number of different kinds of trapezoids — remains popular.

My July 2013 Statistics


As I’ve started keeping track of my blog statistics here where it’s all public information, let me continue.

WordPress says that in July 2013 I had 341 pages read, which is down rather catastrophically from the June score of 713. The number of distinct visitors also dropped, though less alarmingly, from 246 down to 156; this also implies the number of pages each visitor viewed dropped from 2.90 down to 2.19. That’s still the second-highest number of pages-per-visitor that I’ve had recorded since WordPress started sharing that information with me, so, I’m going to suppose that the combination of school letting out (so fewer people are looking for help about trapezoids) and my relatively fewer posts this month hit me. There are presently 215 people following the blog, if my Twitter followers are counted among them. They hear about new posts, anyway.

My most popular posts over the past 30 days have been:

  1. John Dee, the ‘Mathematicall Praeface’ and the English School of Mathematics, which is primarily a pointer to the excellent mathematics history blog The Renaissance Mathematicus, and about the really quite fascinating Doctor John Dee, advisor to England’s Queen Elizabeth I.
  2. Counting From 52 To 11,108, some further work from Professor Inder J Taneja on a lovely bit of recreational mathematics. (Professor Taneja even pops in for the comments.)
  3. Geometry The Old-Fashioned Way, pointing to a fun little web page in which you can work out geometric constructions using straightedge and compass live and direct on the web.
  4. Reading the Comics, July 5, 2013, and finally; I was wondering if people actually still liked these posts.
  5. On Exact And Inexact Differentials, another “reblog” style pointer, this time to Carnot Cycle, a thermodynamics-oriented blog.
  6. And The $64 Question Was, in which I learned something about a classic game show and started to think about how it might be used educationally.

My all-time most popular post remains How Many Trapezoids I Can Draw, because I think there are people out there who worry about how many different kinds of trapezoids there are. I hope I can bring a little peace to their minds. (I make the answer out at six.)

The countries sending me the most viewers the past month have been the United States (165), then Denmark (32), Australia (24), India (18), and the United Kingdom and Brazil (12 each). Sorry, Canada (11). Sending me a single viewer each were Estonia, Slovenia, South Africa, the Netherlands, Argentina, Pakistan, Angola, France, and Switzerland. Argentina and Slovenia did the same for me last month too.

And The $64 Question Was …


I ran across something interesting — I always do, but this was something I wasn’t looking for — in John Dunning’s On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, which is about exactly what it says. In the entry for the quiz show Take It Or Leave It, which, like the quiz shows it evolved into (The $64 Question and The $64,000 Question) asked questions worth amounts doubling all the way to $64. Says Dunning:

Researcher Edith Oliver tried to increase the difficulty with each step, but it was widely believed that the $32 question was the toughest. Perhaps that’s why 75 percent of contestants who got that far decided to go all the way, though only 20 percent of those won the $64.

I am a bit skeptical of those percentages, because they look too much to me like someone, probably for a press release, said something like “three out of four contestants go all the way” and it got turned into a percentage because of the hypnotic lure that decimal digits have on people. However, I can accept that the producers would have a pretty good idea how likely it was a contestant who won $32 would decide to go for the jackpot, rather than take the winnings and go safely home, since that’s information indispensable to making out the show’s budget. I’m a little surprised the final question might have a success rate of only one in five, but then, this is the program that launched the taunting cry “You’ll be sorrrreeeeee” into many cartoons that baffled kids born a generation after the show went off the air (December 1951, in the original incarnation).

It strikes me that topics like how many contestants go on for bigger prizes, and how many win, could be used to produce a series of word problems grounded in a plausible background, at least if the kids learning probability and statistics these days even remember Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is still technically running. (Check your local listings!) Sensible questions could include how likely it is any given contestant would go on to the million-dollar question, how many questions the average contestant answer successfully, and — if you include an estimate for how long the average question takes to answer — how many contestants and questions the show is going to need to fill a day or a week or a month’s time.

My June 2013 Statistics


I don’t understand why, but an awful lot of the advice I see about blogging says that it’s important not just to keep track of how your blog is doing, but also to share it, so that … numbers will like you more? I don’t know. But I can give it a try, anyway.

For June 2013, according to WordPress, I had some 713 page views, out of 246 unique visitors. That’s the second-highest number of page views I’ve had in any month this year (January had 831 views), and the third-highest I’ve had for all time (there were 790 in March 2012). The number of unique visitors isn’t so impressive; since WordPress started giving me that information in December 2012, I’ve had more unique visitors … actually, in every month but May 2013. On the other hand, the pages-per-viewer count of 2.90 is the best I’ve had; the implication seems to be that I’m engaging my audience.

The most popular posts for the past month were Counting From 52 to 11,108, which I believe reflects it getting picked for a class assignment somehow; A Cedar Point Follow-Up, which hasn’t got much mathematics in it but has got pretty pictures of an amusement park, and Solving The Price Is Right’s “Any Number” Game, which has got some original mathematics but also a pretty picture.

My all-time most popular posts are from the series about Trapezoids — working out how to find their area, and how many kinds of trapezoids there are — with such catchy titles as How Many Trapezoids I Can Draw, or How Do You Make A Trapezoid Right?, or Setting Out To Trap A Zoid, which should be recognized as a Dave Barry reference.

My most frequent commenters, “recent”, whatever that means, are Chiaroscuro and BunnyHugger (virtually tied), with fluffy, elkelement, MJ Howard, and Geoffrey Brent rounding out the top six.

The most common source of page clicks the past month was from the United States (468), with Brazil (51) and Canada (23) taking silver and bronze. And WordPress recorded one click each from Portugal, Serbia, Hungary, Macedonia (the Former Yugoslav Republic), Indonesia, Argentina, Poland, Slovenia, and Viet Nam. I’ve been to just one of those countries.

Solving The Price Is Right’s “Any Number” Game


A friend who’s also into The Price Is Right claimed to have noticed something peculiar about the “Any Number” game. Let me give context before the peculiarity.

This pricing game is the show’s oldest — it was actually the first one played when the current series began in 1972, and also the first pricing game won — and it’s got a wonderful simplicity: four digits from the price of a car (the first digit, nearly invariably a 1 or a 2, is given to the contestant and not part of the game), three digits from the price of a decent but mid-range prize, and three digits from a “piggy bank” worth up to $9.87 are concealed. The contestant guesses digits from zero through nine inclusive, and they’re revealed in the three prices. The contestant wins whichever prize has its price fully revealed first. This is a steadily popular game, and one of the rare Price games which guarantees the contestant wins something.

A couple things probably stand out. The first is that if you’re very lucky (or unlucky) you can win with as few as three digits called, although it might be the piggy bank for a measly twelve cents. (Past producers have said they’d never let the piggy bank hold less than $1.02, which still qualifies as “technically something”.) The other is that no matter how bad you are, you can’t take more than eight digits to win something, though it might still be the piggy bank.

What my friend claimed to notice was that these “Any Number” games went on to the last possible digit “all the time”, and he wanted to know, why?

My first reaction was: “all” the time? Well, at least it happened an awful lot of the time. But I couldn’t think of a particular reason that they should so often take the full eight digits needed, or whether they actually did; it’s extremely easy to fool yourself about how often events happen when there’s a complicated possibile set of events. But stipulating that eight digits were often needed, then, why should they be needed? (For that matter, trusting the game not to be rigged — and United States televised game shows are by legend extremely sensitive to charges of rigging — how could they be needed?) Could I explain why this happened? And he asked again, enough times that I got curious myself.

Continue reading “Solving The Price Is Right’s “Any Number” Game”

What Is The Most Common Jeopardy! Response?


Happy New Year!

I want to bring a pretty remarkable project to people’s attention. Dan Slimmon here has taken the archive of Jeopardy! responses (you know, the answers, only the ones given in the form of a question) from the whole Jeopardy! fan archive, http://www.j-archive.com, and analyzed them. He was interested not just in the most common response — which turns out to be “What is Australia?” — but in the expectation value of the responses.

Expectation value I’ve talked about before, and for that matter, everyone mentioning probability or statistics has. Slimmon works out approximately what the expectation value would be for each clue. That is, imagine this: if you ignored the answer on the board entirely and just guessed to every answer either responded absolutely nothing or else responded “What is Australia?”, some of the time you’d be right, and you’d get whatever that clue was worth. How much would you expect to get if you just guessed that answer? Responses that turn up often, such as “Australia”, or that turn up more often in higher-value squares, are worth more. Responses that turn up rarely, or only in low-value squares, have a lower expectation value.

Simmons goes on to list, based on his data, what the 1000 most frequent Jeopardy! responses are, and what the 1000 responses with the highest expectation value are. I’m so delighted to discover this work that I want to bring folks’ attention to it. (I do have a reservation about his calculations, but I need some time to convince myself that I understand exactly his calculation, and my reservation, before I bother anyone with it.)

The comments at his page include a discussion of a technical point about the expectation value calculation which has an interesting point about the approximations often useful, or inevitable, in this kind of work, but that’ll take a separate essay to quite explain that I haven’t the time for just today.

[ Edit: I initially misunderstood Slimmon’s method and have amended the article to reflect the calculation’s details. Specifically I misunderstood him at first to have calculated the expectation value of giving a particular response, and either having it be right or wrong. Slimmon assumed that one would either give the response or not at all; getting the answer wrong costs the contestant money and so has a negative value, while not answering has no value. ]

Reading The Comics, December 28, 2012


As per my declaration I’d do these reviews when I had about seven to ten comics to show off, I’m entering another in the string of mathematics-touching comic strip summaries. Unless the last two days of the year are a bumper crop this finishes out 2012 in the comics and I hope to see everyone in the new year.

Continue reading “Reading The Comics, December 28, 2012”

Why Someone Should Not Take That Deal


My commenters, thank them, quite nicely outlined the major reasons that someone in the Deal or No Deal problem I posited would be wiser to take the Banker’s offer of a sure $11,750 rather than to keep a randomly selected one of $1, $10, $7,500, $25,000, or $35,000. Even though the expectation value, the average that the Contestant could expect from sticking with her suitcase if she played the game an enormous number of times is $13,502.20, fairly noticeably larger than the Banker’s offer, she is just playing the game the once. She’s more likely to do worse than the Banker’s offer, and is as likely to do much worse — $1 or $10 — rather than do any better.

If we suppose the contestant’s objective is to get as much money as possible from playing, her strategy is different if she plays just the once versus if she plays unlimitedly many times. I don’t know a name for this class of problems; maybe we can dub it the “lottery paradox”. It’s not rare for a lottery jackpot to rise high enough that the expected value of one’s winnings are more than the ticket price, which is typically when I’ll bother to buy one (well, two), but I know it’s effectively certain that all I’ll get from the purchase is one (well, two) dollars poorer.

It also strikes me that I have the article subjects for this and the previous entry reversed. Too bad.

Continue reading “Why Someone Should Not Take That Deal”