Playful Math Education Blog Carnival 141


This is the 141st Playful Math Education Blog Carnival. And I will be taking this lower-key than I have past times I was able to host the carnival. I do not have higher keys available this year.

The Numbers

I will start by borrowing a page from Iva Sallay, kind creator and host of FindTheFactors.com, and say some things about 141. I owe Iva Sallay many things, including this comfortable lead-in to the post, and my participation in the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival. She was also kind enough to send me many interesting blogs and pages and I am grateful.

141 is a centered pentagonal number. It’s like 1 or 6 or 16 that way. That is, if I give you six pennies and ask you to do something with it, a natural thing is one coin in the center and a pentagon around that. With 16 coins, you can add a nice regular pentagon around that, one that reaches three coins from vertex to vertex. 31, 51, 76, and 106 are the next couple centered pentagonal numbers. 181 and 226 are the next centered pentagonal numbers. The units number in these follow a pattern, too, in base ten. The last digits go 1-6-6-1, 1-6-6-1, 1-6-6-1, and so on.

141’s also a hendecagonal number. That is, arrange your coins to make a regular 11-sided polygon. 1 and then 11 are hendecagonal numbers. Then 30, 58, 95, and 141. 196 and 260 are the next couple. There are many of these sorts of polygonal numbers, for any regular polygon you like.

141 is also a Hilbert Prime, a class of number I hadn’t heard of before. It’s still named for the Hilbert of Hilbert’s problems. 141 is not a prime number, which you notice from adding up the digits. But a Hilbert Prime is a different kind of beast. These come from looking at counting numbers that are one more than a whole multiple of four. So, numbers like 1, 5, 9, 13, and so on. This sequence describes a lot of classes of numbers. A Hilbert Prime, at least as some number theorists use it, is a Hilbert Number that can’t be divided by any other Hilbert Number (other than 1). So these include 5, 9, 13, 17, and 21, and some of those are already not traditional primes. There are Hilbert Numbers that are the products of different sets of Hilbert Primes, such as 441 or 693. (441 is both 21 times 21 and also 9 times 49. 693 is 9 times 77 and also 21 times 33) So I don’t know what use Hilbert Primes are specifically. If someone knows, I’d love to hear.

Banner art the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival, showing three carousel figures (a bear, a coati, and a horse). The background is a stream of mathematical symbols in gradients of blue-green and yellow light.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Landscape

I first want to thank Denise Gaskins for organizing the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival. It must be always a challenging and exhausting task and to carry it on for years is a great effort. The plan for the next several hosts of the Carnival is here, and if you would like to host a month, it’s a good place to volunteer.

For myself, you’re already looking at my mathematics blog. My big, ambitious project for this year is The All 2020 Mathematics A-to-Z. Each Wednesday I try to publish a long-form piece explaining some piece of mathematics. This week, I should reach the letter P. If you’d like to suggest a topic for the letters Q or R please leave a comment here. My other major project, Reading the Comics and writing about their mathematical content, is on hiatus. I’ll likely get back to it once the A-to-Z is finished.

One of my newer regular readers is Laura, teacher and tutor and author of the MathSux2: Putting math into normal people language blog. There’s new essays every week.

Grassy field with a long string of cars approaching, and groups of people walking the opposite direction. There is no hint that there's an amusement park anywhere in frame.
Second round of overflow parking at Dorney Park. From a visit we took in August of 2014, you remember, that day everybody in eastern Pennsylvania, north Jersey, and southern New York State decided to go to Dorney Park. All these amusement park pictures are ones I’ve taken and I’m happy to say, truthfully, that they’re all connected to something in the main text.

Features

A friend knowing me well shared the Stand-Up Maths video Why is there no equation for the perimeter of an ellipse? The friend knew me well. I once assigned the problem, without working it out, to a vector-calculus class. The integral to do this formula is easy to write. It’s one of the many, many integrals that can’t be done. Attempting to do it leads to fascinating formulas, as seen in the video. And also to elliptic curves, a major research topic in mathematics.

Christian Lawson-Perfect, writing at The Aperiodical, looked at The enormous difficulty of telling the truth about escalators with statistics. Lawson-Perfect saw a sign claiming the subway station’s escalators worked 95% of the time. What did that mean? Defining what it means to have “escalators working” is a challenge. And it’s hard to define “95% of the time” in a way that harmonizes with our intuitions.

Also, at the risk of causing trouble, The Aperiodical also hosts a monthly Carnival of Mathematics. It’s a similar gathering of interesting mathematics content. It doesn’t look necessarily for educational or playful pieces.

I do not have a Desmos account. It’s been long enough since I had a real class that I haven’t yet joined the site. This may need to change. Christopher Sewards posted a set of activities in Permutations and Combinations which may be useful. There’s three so far and they may be joined by more. This I learned through Dan Meyer’s weekly roundup of links.

Meyer’s also made me aware of TheCalt, a mathematics tournament to be held the 17th of October. They’re taking signups even now. Here’s a page with three sample problems for guidance.

Sarah Carter similarly attempts a Monday Must-Reads collection at the MathEqualsLove blog. Given the disruptions of this year this was the first in the series in months. This collects a good number of links, many of them about being interesting while doing online classes.

Photograph of a model of the Montana Rusa roller coaster, under glass, and watched over by a Alebrije-styled dragon-ish figure. It sits on the platform for a roller coaster.
Montaña Rusa, in Mexico City, seen in 2018. It’s one of three Möbius-strip wooden roller coasters in existence.

Helene Osana writes Mathematical thinking begins in the early years with dialogue and real-world exploration. This is an essay about priming the mathematical thinking for the youngest children, those up to about five years old. One can encourage kids with small, casual activities that don’t look like education.

The Reflective Educator posted Precision In Language. This is about one of the hardest bits of teaching. That is to say things which are true and which can’t be mis-remembered as something false. Author David Wees points out an example of this hazard, as kids apply rules outside their context.

Simon Gregg’s essay The Gardener and the Carpenter follows a connected theme. The experience students have with a thing can be different depending on how the teacher presents it. The lead example of Gregg’s essay is about the different ways students played with a toy depending on how the teacher prompted them to explore it.

Also crossing my desk this month was a couple-year-old article Melinda D Anderson published in The Atlantic. How Does Race Affect a Student’s Math Education? Mathematics affects a pose of being a culturally-independent, value-neutral study. The conclusions it draws might be. But what we choose to study, and how we choose to study it, is not. And how we teach it is socially biased and determined. So here are thoughts about that.

The last several links describe things we know thanks to modern psychology and neuroscience studies. Nicklas Balboa and Richard D Glaser published in Psychology Today Three Habits That Reduce Conversational Success. There are conversations which are, effectively, teaching attempts. To be aware of how those attempts go wrong, and how to fix them, is surely worth while.

Ben Orlin, of the popular Math With Bad Drawings blog, wrote Democracy isn’t math. But it isn’t NOT math. He contributed recently to David Litt’s Democracy In One Book Or Less. The broad goal of democracy, the setting of social rules by common consensus, might not be mathematical. When we look to the practical matters of implementing this, though, then we get a lot of mathematics. I have not read Litt’s book, or any recently-published book, so can’t say anything about its contents. I bet it includes Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, though.

Photograph of the lift hill for a wooden roller coaster, taken with the sunlight gleaming on the tracks. Standing traverse to the end of the coaster in front is another roller coaster, a steel coaster with a more scaffold-like structure and seen in silhouette against the blue sky.
Lift hill for Thunderhawk, Dorney Park’s antique wooden roller coaster. Behind it, if I’ve got this right, is Steel Force, a much taller steel coaster. Photo from August 2014.

Anyone attempting to teach this year is having a heck of a time. Sarah Carter offered Goals for the 2020-2021 School Year – PANDEMIC STYLE as an attempt to organize planning. And shared her goals, which may help other people too.

Emelina Minero offered 8 Strategies to Improve Participation in Your Virtual Classroom. Class participation was always the most challenging part of my teaching, when I did any of that, and this was face-to-face. Online is a different experience, with different challenges. That there is usually the main channel of voice chat and the side channel of text offers new ways to get people to share, though.

The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics offered Two Pleas to Maths Teachers at the Start of the School Year. This is about how to keep the unusual circumstances of the whole year from encouraging bad habits. This particularly since no one is on track, or near it.

S Leigh Nataro, of the MathTeacher24 blog, writes Learning Math is Social: We Are in This Together. Many teachers have gotten administrative guidance that … doesn’t … guide well. The easy joke is to say it never did. But the practical bits of most educational strategies we learn from long experience. There’s no comparable experience here. What are ways to reduce the size of the crisis? Nataro has thoughts.

Enlightenment

Now I can come to more bundles of things to teach. Colleen Young gathered Maths at school … and at home, bundles of exercises and practice sheets. One of the geometry puzzles, about the missing lengths in the perimeter of a hexagon, brings me a smile as this is a sort of work I’ve been doing for my day job.

Starting Points Maths has a page of Radian Measure — Intro. The goal here is building comfort in the use of radians as angle measure. Mathematicians tend to think in radians. The trigonometric functions for radian measure behave well. Derivatives and integrals are easy, for example. We do a lot of derivatives and integrals. The measures look stranger, is all, especially as they almost always involve fractions times π.

Small swing ride, in mid-ride-cycle, with the swings lifted into the air and tilted. There are only two people on the whole ride and they are barely visible against the silhouette of background trees.
(Children’s) swing ride at Seabreeze Park in Rochester, New York (2019). It was a cool day when we visited.

The Google Images picture gallery How Many? offers a soothing and self-directed counting puzzle. Each picture is a collection of things. How to count them, and even what you choose to count, is yours to judge.

Miss Konstantine of MathsHKO posted Area (Equal — Pythagorean Triples). Miss Konstantine had started with Pythagorean triplets, sets of numbers that can be the legs of a right triangle. And then explored other families of shapes that can have equal areas, including looking to circles and rings.

Sarah Carter makes another appearance here with New Puzzle: Only ‘Takes’ and ‘Adds’. This is in part about the challenge of finding new puzzles to make each week. And then an arithmetic challenge. Carter mentions how one presentation is quite nice for how it teaches so many rules of the puzzle.

Cassandra Lowry with the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute offers Finding the Maths in Books. This is about how to read a book to find mathematical puzzles within. This is for children up to about second grade. The problems are about topics like counting and mapping and ordering.

Lowry also has Helping Your Child Learn Time, using both analog and digital clocks. That lets me mention a recent discussion with my love, who teaches. My love’s students were not getting the argument that analog clocks can offer a better sense of how time is elapsing. I had what I think a compelling argument: an analog clock is like a health bar, a digital clock like the count of hit points. Logic tells me this will communicate well.

YummyMath’s Fall Equinox 2020 describes some of the geometry of the equinoxes. It also offers questions about how to calculate the time of daylight given one’s position on the Earth. This is one of the great historic and practical uses for trigonometry.

Games

To some play! Miguel Barral wrote Much More Than a Diversion: The Mathematics of Solitaire. There are many kinds of solitaire, which is ultimately just a game that can be played alone. They’re all subject to study through game theory. And to questions like “what is the chance of winning”? That’s often a question best answered by computer simulation. Working out that challenge helped create Monte Carlo methods. These can find approximate solutions to problems too difficult to find perfect solutions for.

At Bedtime Math, Laura Overdeck wrote How Do Doggie Treats Taste? And spun this into some basic arithmetic problems built around the fun of giving dogs treats.

Conditional probability is fun. It’s full of questions easy to present and contradicting intuition to solve. Wayne Chadburn’s Big Question explores one of them. It’s based on a problem which went viral a couple years ago, called “Hannah’s Sweet”. I missed the problem when it was getting people mad. But Chadburn explores how to think through the problem.

Photograph of a large carousel, seen by night. The four horses in front are each at a different position despite being in the same column: the white horse nearest the camera is several feet behind the tan horse farther from it, and a grey and a black horse are scattered forward and back of those.
A column of horses at Cedar Point (Ohio)’s Cedar Downs, a racing merry-go-round. The horses move forward and backward in those slots. Also the carousel moves fast, which makes it much better. (October 2019.)

Paul Godding’s 7 Puzzle Blog gives a string of recreational mathematics puzzles. Some include factoring, some include making expressions equal to particular numbers. They’re all things you can do when Slylock Fox printed the Six Differences puzzle too small for your eyes.

FractalKitty has a cute cartoon, No 5-second rule … about how the set of irrational numbers interacts with rationals in basic arithmetic.

Carnivals

Now to some deeper personal interests. I am an amusement park enthusiast: I’ve ridden at least 250 different roller coasters at least once each. This includes all the wooden Möbius-strip roller coasters out there. Also all three racing merry-go-rounds. The oldest roller coaster still standing. And I had hoped, this year, to get to the centennial years for the Jackrabbit roller coaster at Kennywood Amusement Park (Pittsburgh) and Jack Rabbit roller coaster at Seabreeze Park (Rochester, New York). Jackrabbit (with spelling variants) used to be a quite popular roller coaster name.

So plans went awry and it seems unlikely we’ll get to any amusement parks this year. No county fairs or carnivals. We can still go to virtual ones, though. Amusement parks and midway games inspire many mathematical questions. So let’s take some in.

Michigan State University’s Connected Mathematics Program set up set up a string of carnival-style games. The event’s planners figured on then turning the play money into prize raffles but you can also play games. Some are legitimate midway games, such as plinko, spinner wheels, or racing games, too.

Resource Area For Teaching’s Carnival Math offers for preschool through grade six a semi-practical carnival game. There’s different goals for different education levels.

Hooda Math’s Carnival Fun offers a series of games, many of them Flash, a fair number HTML5, and mostly for kindergraden through 8th grade. There are a lot of mathematics games here, along with some physics and word games.

Photograph of a couple of midway games: Knock It Off (a milk-cans game), Hot Shots (basketball game), Cat Rack (knocking over cat figures), and Balloon Darts (a pop-the-balloons game). No one is playing them yet and it's not clear they're attended.
Some midway gaves on offer at Seabreeze Park in Rochester, New York (2019). It was a slow day and the park had just opened minutes before.

I found interesting the talk about Math Midway, a touring exhibition meant to make mathematics ideas tactile. I’m not sure it’s still a going concern, though. Its schedule lists it as being at the Singapore Science Centre from February 2016 to present. But it’s not mentioned on the Singapore Science Centre’s page. (They do have a huge Tesla coil, though. Also they at least used to have an Albert Einstein animatronic, forever ascending and descending a rope. I enjoyed visiting it, although I would recommend going to the Tiger Balm Gardens as higher prioerity.) Still, exploring this did lead me to The National Museum of Mathematics, located in New York City. It has a fair number of exhibits and its events online.

Rides

But enough of the carnival as a generic theme. How about specific, actual rides and games? Theme Park Insider, one of the web’s top amusement-park-industry news, published Master the Midway: The Theme Park Insider Guide to Winning Carnival Games several years ago. The take from midway games is an expression of the Law of Large Numbers. The number of prizes won and their value will fluctuate day to day, but the averages will be predictable. And what players can do to better their chances is subject to reason.

Specific rides, though, are always beautiful and worth looking at. Ann-Marie Pendrill’s Rotating swings—a theme with variations looks at rotating swing rides. These have many kinds of motion and many can be turned into educational problems. Pendrill looks at some of them. There are other articles recommended by this, which seem relevant, but this was the only article I found which I had permission to read in full. Your institution might have better access.

Lin McMullin’s The Scrambler, or A Family of Vectors at the Amusement Park looks at the motion of the most popular thrill ride out there. (There are more intense rides. But they’re also ones many people feel are too much for them. Few people in a population think the Scrambler is too much for them.) McMullin uses the language of vectors to examine what path the rider traces out during a ride, and what they say about velocity and acceleration. These are all some wonderful shapes.

Evening photograph of a Scrambler, yellow and lit by its neon tube lighting. The greater focus is on the Googie-style Scrambler ride sign, self-illuminated in panels of rectangles rising and falling around the baseline and in a gorgeous thin typeface.
You may have wondered on a Scrambler ride how long it takes to get back to the same ground position. The answer is that it depends on just how the pieces rotate. (Lakeside Park, Denver, visited in June 2018.)

And Amusement Parks

Many amusement parks host science and mathematics education days. In fact I’ve never gone to the opening day of my home park, Michigan’s Adventure, as that’s a short four-hour day filled with area kids. Many of the parks do have activity pages, though, suggesting the kinds of things to think about at a park. Some of the mathematics is things one can use; some is toying with curiosity.

Here’s The State Fair of Texas’s Grade 6 STEM games. I don’t know whether there’s a more recent edition. But also imagine that tasks like counting the traffic flow or thinking about what energies are shown at different times in a ride do not age.

Photograph of a Dentzel antique carousel, focused on a black horse with red-and-white rose-themed saddle and leading the gryphon-themed chariot.
Dorney Park’s antique carousel, which at one time turned in the small Lake Lansing Amusement Park. Photo from August 2014.

Dorney Park, in northeastern Pennsylvania, was never my home park, but it was close. And I’ve had the chance to visit several times. People with Kutztown University, regional high schools, and Dorney Park prepared Coaster Quest – Geometry. These include a lot of observations and measurements all tied to specific rides at the park. (And a side fact, fun for me: Dorney Park’s carousel used to be at Lake Lansing Amusement Park, a few miles from me. Lake Lansing’s park closed in 1972, and the carousel spent several decades at Cedar Point in Ohio before moving to Pennsylvania. The old carousel building at Lake Lansing still stands, though, and I happened to be there a few weeks ago.)

And I have yet to make it to Six Flags America, but their Math & Science In Action page offers a similar roster of activities tied to that park. Six Flags America is their park in Maryland; the one in Illinois is Six Flags Great America.

Math Word Problems Solved offers a booklet of Amusement Park Word Problems Starring Pre-Algebra. These tie in to no particular amusement park. They do draw from real parks, though. For example it lists the highest point on the tallest steel roller coaster as 456 feet; it doesn’t name the ride, but that’s Kingda Ka, at Great Adventure. The highest point on the tallest wooden roller coaster is given as 218 feet, which was true at its 2009 publication: Son of Beast at Kings Island. Sad to say Son Of Beast closed in 2009, and was torn down in 2012. The current record heights in wooden coasters are T Express at Everland in South Korea, and Wildfire at Kolmården in Sweden. (Too much height is not really that good for wooden roller coasters.)

A 2018 posting on Social Mathematics asks: Do height restrictions matter to safety on Roller Coasters? Of course they do, or else we’d have more roller coasters that allowed mice to ride. The question is how much the size restriction matters, and how sensitive that dependence is. So the leading question is a classic example of applying mathematics to the real world. This includes practical subtleties like if a person 39.5 inches tall could ride safely, is it fair to round that off to 40 inches? It also includes the struggle to work out how dangerous an amusement park is.

Speaking from my experience as a rider and lover of amusement parks: don’t try to plead someone’s “close enough”. You’re putting an unfair burden on the ride operator. Accept the rules as posted. Everybody who loves amusement parks has their disappointment stories; accept yours in good grace.


Three roller coasters, one a tall skinny steel coaster, one a chunky white racing wooden coaster, and one a sleek modern wooden roller coaster, seen side-by-side.
Kingda Ka, Rolling Thunder, and El Toro, side by side. Rolling Thunder, itself a racing roller coaster, has since been torn down. Rolling Thunder’s greatest height was 96 feet, on both sides of the train. (Photo from July 2013.)

This leads me into planning amusement park fun. School Specialty’s blog particularly offers PLAY & PLAN: Amusement Park. This is a guide to building an amusement park activity packet for any primary school level. It includes, by the way, some mention of the historical and cultural aspects. That falls outside my focus on mathematics with a side of science here. But there is a wealth of culture in amusement parks, in their rides, their attractions, and their policies.

And to step away from the fun a moment. Many aspects of the struggle to bring equality to Americans are reflected in amusement parks, or were fought by proxy in them. This is some serious matter, and is challenging to teach. Few amusement parks would mention segregation or racist attractions or policies except elliptically. (That midway game where you throw a ball at a clown’s face? The person taking the hit was not always a clown.) Claire Prentice’s The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century is a book I recommend. It reflects one slice of this history.


Let me resume the fun, by looking to imaginary amusement parks. TeachEngineering’s Amusement Park Ride: Ups and Downs in Design designs and builds model “roller coasters”. This from foam tubes, toothpicks, masking tape, and marbles. It’s easier to build a ride in Roller Coaster Tycoon but that will always lack some of the thrill of having a real thing that doesn’t quite do what you want. The builders of Son Of Beast had the same frustration.

The Howard County Public Schools Office published a Mathatastic Amusement Park worksheet. It uses the problem of finding things on a park map to teach about (Cartesian) coordinates in a well-motivated way.

The Brunswick (Ohio) City Schools published a nice Amusement Park Map Project. It also introduces students to coordinate systems. This by having them lay out and design their own amusement park. It includes introductions to basic shapes. I am surprised reading the requirements that merry-go-rounds aren’t included, as circles. I am delighted that the plan calls for eight to ten roller coasters and a petting zoo, though. That plan works for me.

Cheryl Q Nelson and Nicole L Williams, writing for Mathematics Teacher, published the article Sprinklers and Amusement Parks: What Do They Have To Do With Geometry? Both (water) sprinklers and amusement park vendors are about covering spaces without waste. Someone might wonder at their hypothetical park where the bumper cars are one of the three most popular rides. I recommend a visit, when possible, to Conneaut Lake Park, in northwestern Pennsylvania. Their bumper cars are wild. Their roller coaster’s pretty great too.

And finally a bit of practical yet light news. Dickinson University was happy to share how The Traveling Salesman Problem Finds A Novel Application in Summer Student-Faculty Research Project. The Traveling Salesman Problem is the challenge to find the most efficient way to any set of points. It’s a problem both important and difficult. As you try to get to more points the problem (typically) gets far more difficult. I hadn’t seen it applied to amusement park itineraries before, but that’s a legitimate use. I am disappointed the press release did not share their work on most efficient routes around Hersheypark and Disney World. They did publish a comparison of ways to attack the problem.


Evening photograph showing the outlines of Kingda Ka and El Toro roller coasters against night clouds. A streak of pinpoint lights go over the top of Kingda Ka.
Kingda Ka and El Toro seen by night. It looks like there’s a train going right over the top of El Toro. (Photo from July 2013.)

And this closes the carnival, for today. If you’d like to follow this blog, please click the “Follow NebusReseearch” button the page. Or you can add the articles feed to your favorite RSS reader. My Twitter account @Nebusj is all but moribund. For whatever reason Safari often doesn’t want to let me see it. I am also present and active on Mathstodon. This is the mathematics-themed instance of Mastodon, as @Nebusj@mathstodon.xyz. I would be glad to have more people to chat with there. Thank you as ever for reading.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: The Game of ‘Y’


Today’s A To Z term is … well, my second choice. Goldenoj suggested Yang-Mills and I was so interested. Yang-Mills describes a class of mathematical structures. They particularly offer insight into how to do quantum mechanics. Especially particle physics. It’s of great importance. But, on thinking out what I would have to explain I realized I couldn’t write a coherent essay about it. Getting to what the theory is made of would take explaining a bunch of complicated mathematical structures. If I’d scheduled the A-to-Z differently, setting up matters like Lie algebras, maybe I could do it, but this time around? No such help. And I don’t feel comfortable enough in my knowledge of Yang-Mills to describe it without describing its technical points.

That said I hope that Jacob Siehler, who suggested the Game of ‘Y’, does not feel slighted. I hadn’t known anything of the game going in to the essay-writing. When I started research I was delighted. I have yet to actually play a for-real game of this. But I like what I see, and what I can think I can write about it.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Game of ‘Y’.

This is, as the name implies, a game. It has two players. They have the same objective: to create a ‘y’. Here, they do it by laying down tokens representing their side. They take turns, each laying down one token in a turn. They do this on a shape with three edges. The ‘y’ is created when there’s a continuous path of their tokens that reaches all three edges. Yes, it counts to have just a single line running along one edge of the board. This makes a pretty sorry ‘y’ but it suggests your opponent isn’t trying.

There are details of implementation. The board is a mesh of, mostly, hexagons. I take this to be for the same reason that so many conquest-type strategy games use hexagons. They tile space well, they give every space a good number of neighbors, and the distance from the centers of one neighbor to another is constant. In a square grid, the centers of diagonal neighbors are farther than the centers of left-right or up-down neighbors. Hexagons do well for this kind of game, where the goal is to fill space, or at least fill paths in space. There’s even a game named Hex, slightly older than Y, with similar rules. In that the goal is to draw a continuous path from one end of the rectangular grid to another. The grid of commercial boards, that I see, are around nine hexagons on a side. This probably reflects a desire to have a big enough board that games go on a while, but not so big that they go on forever

Mathematicians have things to say about this game. It fits nicely in game theory. It’s well-designed to show some things about game theory. It’s the kind of game which has perfect information game, for example. Each player knows, at all times, the moves all the players have made. Just look at the board and see where they’ve placed their tokens. A player might have forgotten the order the tokens were placed in, but that’s the player’s problem, not the game’s. Anyway in Y, the order of token-placing doesn’t much matter.

It’s also a game of complete information. Every player knows, at every step, what the other player could do. And what objective they’re working towards. One party, thinking enough, could forecast the other’s entire game. This comes close to the joke about the prisoners telling each other jokes by shouting numbers out to one another.

It is also a game in which a draw is impossible. Play long enough and someone must win. This even if both parties are for some reason trying to lose. There are ingenious proofs of this, but we can show it by considering a really simple game. Imagine playing Y on a tiny board, one that’s just one hex on each side. Definitely want to be the first player there.

So now imagine playing a slightly bigger board. Augment this one-by-one-by-one board by one row. That is, here, add two hexes along one of the sides of the original board. So there’s two pieces here; one is the original territory, and one is this one-row augmented territory. Look first at the original territory. Suppose that one of the players has gotten a ‘Y’ for the original territory. Will that player win the full-size board? … Well, sure. The other player can put a token down on either hex in the augmented territory. But there’s two hexes, either of which would make a path that connects the three edges of the board. The first player can put a token down on the other hex in the augmented territory, and now connects all three of the new sides again. First player wins.

All right, but how about a slightly bigger board? So take that two-by-two-by-two board and augment it, adding three hexes along one of the sides. Imagine a player’s won the original territory board. Do they have to win the full-size board? … Sure. The second player can put something in the augmented territory. But there’s again two hexes that would make the path connecting all three sides of the full board. The second player can put a token in one of those hexes. But the first player can put a token in the other of those. First player wins again.

How about a slightly bigger board yet? … Same logic holds. Really the only reason that the first player doesn’t always win is that, at some point, the first player screws up. And this is an existence proof, showing that the first player can always win. It doesn’t give any guidance into how to play, though. If the first player plays perfectly, she’s compelled to win. This is something which happens in many two-player, symmetric games. A symmetric game is one where either player has the same set of available moves, and can make the same moves with the same results. This proof needs to be tightened up to really hold. But it should convince you, at least, that the first player has an advantage.

So given that, the question becomes why play this game after you’ve decided who’ll go first? The reason you might if you were playing a game is, what, you have something else to do? And maybe you think you’ll make fewer mistakes than your opponent. One approach often used in symmetric games like this is the “pie rule”. The name comes from the story about how to slice a pie so you and your sibling don’t fight over the results. One cuts the pie, the other gets first pick of the slice, and then you fight anyway. In this game, though, one player makes a tentative first move. The other decides whether they will be Player One with that first move made or whether they’ll be Player Two, responding.

There are some neat quirks in the commercial Y games. One is that they don’t actually show hexes, and you don’t put tokens in the middle of hexes. Instead you put tokens on the spots that would be the center of the hex. On the board are lines pointing to the neighbors. This makes the board actually a string of triangles. This is the dual to the hex grid. It shows a set of vertices, and their connections, instead of hexes and their neighbors. Whether you think the hex grid or this dual makes it easier to tell when you’ve connected all three edges is a matter of taste. It does make the edges less jagged all around.

Another is that there will be three vertices that don’t connect to six others. They connect to five others, instead. Their spaces would be pentagons. As I understand the literature on this, this is a concession to game balance. It makes it easier for one side to fend off a path coming from the center.

It has geometric significance, though. A pure hexagonal grid is a structure that tiles the plane. A mostly hexagonal grid, with a couple of pentagons, though? That can tile the sphere. To cover the whole sphere you need something like at least twelve irregular spots. But this? With the three pentagons? That gives you a space that’s topographically equivalent to a hemisphere, or at least a slice of the sphere. If we do imagine the board to be a hemisphere covered, then the result of the handful of pentagon spaces is to make the “pole” closer to the equator.

So as I say the game seems fun enough to play. And it shows off some of the ways that game theorists classify games. And the questions they ask about games. Is the game always won by someone? Does one party have an advantage? Can one party always force a win? It also shows the kinds of approach game theorists can use to answer these questions. This before they consider whether they’d enjoy playing it.


I am excited to say that there’s just the one more time this year that I will realize: it’s Wednesday evening and I’m 1200 words short. Please stop in Thursday when I hope to have the letter Z represented. That, and all of this year’s A-to-Z essays, should appear at this link. And if that isn’t enough, I’ll feature some past essays on Friday and Saturday, and have most of my past A-to-Z essays at this link. Thank you.

Particle Physics Made Hard


A friend was playing with that cute little particle-physics simulator idea I mentioned last week. And encountered a problem. With a little bit of thought, I was able to not solve the problem. But I was able to explain why it was a subtler and more difficult problem than they had realized. These are the moments that make me feel justified calling myself a mathematician.

The proposed simulation was simple enough: imagine a bunch of particles that interact by rules that aren’t necessarily symmetric. Like, the attraction particle A exerts on particle B isn’t the same as what B exerts on A. Or there are multiple species of particles. So (say) red particles are attracted to blue but repelled by green. But green is attracted to red and repelled by blue twice as strongly as red is attracted to blue. Your choice.

Give a mathematician a perfectly good model of something. She’ll have the impulse to try tinkering with it. One reliable way to tinker with it is to change the domain on which it works. If your simulation supposes you have particles moving on the plane, then, what if they were in space instead? Or on the surface of a sphere? Or what if something was strange about the plane? My friend had this idea: what if the particles were moving on the surface of a cube?

And the problem was how to find the shortest distance between two particles on the surface of a cube. The distance matters since most any attraction rule depends on the distance. This may be as simple as “particles more than this distance apart don’t interact in any way”. The obvious approach, or if you prefer the naive approach, is to pretend the cube is a sphere and find distances that way. This doesn’t get it right, not if the two points are on different faces of the cube. If they’re on adjacent faces, ones which share an edge — think the floor and the wall of a room — it seems straightforward enough. My friend got into trouble with points on opposite faces. Think the floor and the ceiling.

This problem was posed (to the public) in January 1905 by Henry Ernest Dudeney. Dudeney was a newspaper columnist with an exhaustive list of mathematical puzzles. A couple of the books collecting them are on Project Gutenberg. The puzzles show their age in spots. Some in language; some in problems that ask to calculate money in pounds-shillings-and-pence. Many of them are chess problems. But many are also still obviously interesting, and worth thinking about. This one, I was able to find, was a variation of The Spider and the Fly, problem 75 in The Canterbury Puzzles:

Inside a rectangular room, measuring 30 feet in length and 12 feet in width and height, a spider is at a point on the middle of one of the end walls, 1 foot from the ceiling, as at A; and a fly is on the opposite wall, 1 foot from the floor in the centre, as shown at B. What is the shortest distance that the spider must crawl in order to reach the fly, which remains stationary? Of course the spider never drops or uses its web, but crawls fairly.

(Also I admire Dudeney’s efficient closing off of the snarky, problem-breaking answer someone was sure to give. It suggests experienced thought about how to pose problems.)

What makes this a puzzle, even a paradox, is that the obvious answer is wrong. At least, what seems like the obvious answer is to start at point A, move to one of the surfaces connecting the spider’s and the fly’s starting points, and from that move to the fly’s surface. But, no: you get a shorter answer by using more surfaces. Going on a path that seems like it wanders more gets you a shorter distance. The solution’s presented here, along with some follow-up problems. In this case, the spider’s shortest path uses five of the six surfaces of the room.

The approach to finding this is an ingenious one. Imagine the room as a box, and unfold it into something flat. Then find the shortest distance on that flat surface. Then fold the box back up. It’s a good trick. It turns out to be useful in many problems. Mathematical physicists often have reason to ponder paths of things on flattenable surfaces like this. Sometimes they’re boxes. Sometimes they’re toruses, the shape of a doughnut. This kind of unfolding often makes questions like “what’s the shortest distance between points” easier to solve.

There are wrinkles to the unfolding. Of course there are. How interesting would it be if there weren’t? The wrinkles amount to this. Imagine you start at the corner of the room, and walk up a wall at a 45 degree angle to the horizon. You’ll get to the far corner eventually, if the room has proportions that allow it. All right. But suppose you walked up at an angle of 30 degrees to the horizon? At an angle of 75 degrees? You’ll wind your way around the walls (and maybe floor and ceiling) some number of times, each path you start with. Probably different numbers of times. Some path will be shortest, and that’s fine. But … like, think about the path that goes along the walls and ceiling and floor three times over. The room, unfolded into a flat panel, has only one floor and one ceiling and each wall once. The straight line you might be walking goes right off the page.

And this is the wrinkle. You might need to tile the room. In a column of blocks (like in Dudeney’s solution) every fourth block might be the floor, with, between any two of them, a ceiling. This is fine, and what’s needed. It can be a bit dizzying to imagine such a state of affairs. But if you’ve ever zoomed a map of the globe out far enough that you see Australia six times over then you’ve understood how this works.

I cannot attest that this has helped my friend in the slightest. I am glad that my friend wanted to think about the surface of the cube. The surface of a dodecahedron would be far, far past my ability to help with.

A Neat Fake Particle Physics Simulator


A friend sent me this video, after realizing that I had missed an earlier mention of it and thought it weird I never commented on it. And I wanted to pass it on, partly because it’s neat and partly because I haven’t done enough writing about topics besides the comics recently.

Particle Life: A Game Of Life Made Of Particles is, at least in video form, a fascinating little puzzle. The Game of Life referenced is one that anybody reading a pop mathematics blog is likely to know. But here goes. The Game of Life is this iterative process. We look at a grid of points, with each point having one of a small set of possible states. Traditionally, just two. At each iteration we go through every grid location. We might change that state. Whether we do depends on some simple rules. In the original Game of Life it’s (depending on your point of view) two or either three rules. A common variation is to include “mutations”, where a location’s state changes despite what the other rules would dictate. And the fascinating thing is that these very simple rules can yield incredibly complicated and beautiful patterns. It’s a neat mathematical refutation of the idea that life is so complicated that it must take a supernatural force to generate. It turns out that many things following simple rules can produce complicated patterns. We will often call them “unpredictable”, although (unless we do have mutations) they are literally perfectly predictable. They’re just chaotic, with tiny changes in the starting conditions often resulting in huge changes in behavior quickly.

This Particle Life problem is built on similar principles. The model is different. Instead of grid locations there are a cloud of particles. The rules are a handful of laws of attraction-or-repulsion. That is, that each particle exerts a force on all the other particles in the system. This is very like the real physics, of clouds of asteroids or of masses of electrically charged gasses or the like. But, like, a cloud of asteroids has everything following the same rule, everything attracts everything else with an intensity that depends on their distance apart. Masses of charged particles follow two rules, particles attracting or repelling each other with an intensity that depends on their distance apart.

This simulation gets more playful. There can be many kinds of particles. They can follow different and non-physically-realistic rules. Like, a red particle can be attracted to a blue, while a blue particle is repelled by a red. A green particle can be attracted to a red with twice the intensity that a red particle’s attracted to a green. Whatever; set different rules and you create different mock physics.

The result is, as the video shows, particles moving in “unpredictable” ways. Again, here, it’s “unpredictable” in the same way that I couldn’t predict when my birthday will next fall on a Tuesday. That is to say, it’s absolutely predictable; it’s just not obvious before you do the calculations. Still, it’s wonderful watching and tinkering with, if you have time to create some physics simulators. There’s source code for one in C++ that you might use. If you’re looking for little toy projects to write on your own, I suspect this would be a good little project to practice your Lua/LOVE coding, too.

My 2018 Mathematics A To Z: Zugzwang


My final glossary term for this year’s A To Z sequence was suggested by aajohannas, who’d also suggested “randomness” and “tiling”. I don’t know of any blogs or other projects they’re behind, but if I do hear, I’ll pass them on.

Cartoon of a thinking coati (it's a raccoon-like animal from Latin America); beside him are spelled out on Scrabble titles, 'MATHEMATICS A TO Z', on a starry background. Various arithmetic symbols are constellations in the background.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Newshounds, Something Happens, and Infinity Refugees. His current project is Projection Edge. And you can get Projection Edge six months ahead of public publication by subscribing to his Patreon. And he’s on Twitter as @Newshoundscomic.

Zugzwang.

Some areas of mathematics struggle against the question, “So what is this useful for?” As though usefulness were a particular merit — or demerit — for a field of human study. Most mathematics fields discover some use, though, even if it takes centuries. Others are born useful. Probability, for example. Statistics. Know what the fields are and you know why they’re valuable.

Game theory is another of these. The subject, as often happens, we can trace back centuries. Usually as the study of some particular game. Occasionally in the study of some political science problem. But game theory developed a particular identity in the early 20th century. Some of this from set theory experts. Some from probability experts. Some from John von Neumann, because it was the 20th century and all that. Calling it “game theory” explains why anyone might like to study it. Who doesn’t like playing games? Who, studying a game, doesn’t want to play it better?

But why it might be interesting is different from why it might be important. Think of what a game is. It is a string of choices made by one or more parties. The point of the choices is to achieve some goal. Put that way you realize: this is everything. All life is making choices, all in the pursuit of some goal, even if that goal is just “not end up any worse off”. I don’t know that the earliest researchers in game theory as a field realized what a powerful subject they had touched on. But by the 1950s they were doing serious work in strategic planning, and by 1964 were even giving us Stanley Kubrick movies.

This is taking me away from my glossary term. The field of games is enormous. If we narrow the field some we can discuss specific kinds of games. And say more involved things about these games. So first we’ll limit things by thinking only of sequential games. These are ones where there are a set number of players, and they take turns making choices. I’m not sure whether the field expects the order of play to be the same every time. My understanding is that much of the focus is on two-player games. What’s important is that at any one step there’s only one party making a choice.

The other thing narrowing the field is to think of information. There are many things that can affect the state of the game. Some of them might be obvious, like where the pieces are on the game board. Or how much money a player has. We’re used to that. But there can be hidden information. A player might conceal some game money so as to make other players underestimate her resources. Many card games have one or more cards concealed from the other players. There can be information unknown to any party. No one can make a useful prediction what the next throw of the game dice will be. Or what the next event card will be.

But there are games where there’s none of this ambiguity. These are called games with “perfect information”. In them all the players know the past moves every player has made. Or at least should know them. Players are allowed to forget what they ought to know.

There’s a separate but similar-sounding idea called “complete information”. In a game with complete information, players know everything that affects the gameplay. At least, probably, apart from what their opponents intend to do. This might sound like an impossibly high standard, at first. All games with shuffled decks of cards and with dice to roll are out. There’s no concealing or lying about the state of affairs.

Set complete-information aside; we don’t need it here. Think only of perfect-information games. What are they? Some ancient games, certainly. Tic-tac-toe, for example. Some more modern versions, like Connect Four and its variations. Some that are actually deep, like checkers and chess and go. Some that are, arguably, more puzzles than games, as in sudoku. Some that hardly seem like games, like several people agreeing how to cut a cake fairly. Some that seem like tests to prove people are fundamentally stupid, like when you auction off a dollar. (The rules are set so players can easily end up paying more then a dollar.) But that’s enough for me, at least. You can see there are games of clear, tangible interest here.

The last restriction: think only of two-player games. Or at least two parties. Any of these two-party sequential games with perfect information are a part of “combinatorial game theory”. It doesn’t usually allow for incomplete-information games. But at least the MathWorld glossary doesn’t demand they be ruled out. So I will defer to this authority. I’m not sure how the name “combinatorial” got attached to this kind of game. My guess is that it seems like you should be able to list all the possible combinations of legal moves. That number may be enormous, as chess and go players are always going on about. But you could imagine a vast book which lists every possible game. If your friend ever challenged you to a game of chess the two of you could simply agree, oh, you’ll play game number 2,038,940,949,172 and then look up to see who won. Quite the time-saver.

Most games don’t have such a book, though. Players have to act on what they understand of the current state, and what they think the other player will do. This is where we get strategies from. Not just what we plan to do, but what we imagine the other party plans to do. When working out a strategy we often expect the other party to play perfectly. That is, to make no mistakes, to not do anything that worsens their position. Or that reduces their chance of winning.

… And yes, arguably, the word “chance” doesn’t belong there. These are games where the rules are known, every past move is known, every future move is in principle computable. And if we suppose everyone is making the best possible move then we can imagine forecasting the whole future of the game. One player has a “chance” of winning in the same way Christmas day of the year 2038 has a “chance” of being on a Tuesday. That is, the probability is just an expression of our ignorance, that we don’t happen to be able to look it up.

But what choice do we have? I’ve never seen a reference that lists all the possible games of tic-tac-toe. And that’s about the simplest combinatorial-game-theory game anyone might actually play. What’s possible is to look at the current state of the game. And evaluate which player seems to be closer to her goal. And then look at all the possible moves.

There are three things a move can do. It can put the party closer to the goal. It can put the party farther from the goal. Or it can do neither. On her turn the other party might do something that moves you farther from your goal, moves you closer to your goal, or doesn’t affect your status at all. It seems like this makes strategy obvious. On every step take the available move that takes one closest to the goal. This is known as a “greedy” strategy. As the name suggests it isn’t automatically bad. If you expect the game to be a short one, greed might be the best approach. The catch is that moves that seem less good — even ones that seem to hurt you initially — might set up other, even better moves. So strategy requires some thinking beyond the current step. Properly, it requires thinking through to the end of the game. Or at least until the end of the game seems obvious.

We should like a strategy that leaves us no choice but to win. Next-best would be one that leaves the game undecided, since something might happen like the other player needing to catch a bus and so resigning. This is how I got my solitary win in the two months I spent in the college chess club. Worst would be the games that leave us no choice but to lose.

It can be that there are no good moves. That is, that every move available makes it a little less likely that we win. Sometimes a game offers the chance to pass, preserving the state of the game but giving the other party the turn. Then maybe the other party will do something that creates a better opportunity for us. But if we are allowed to pass, there’s a good chance the game lets the other party pass, too, and we end up in the same fix. And it may be the rules of the game don’t allow passing anyway. One must move.

The phenomenon of having to make a move when it’s impossible to make a good move has prominence in chess. I don’t have the chess knowledge to say how common the situation is. But it seems to be a situation people who study chess problems love. I suppose it appeals to a love of lost causes and the hope that you can be brilliant enough to see what everyone else has overlooked. German chess literate gave it a name 160 years ago, “zugzwang”, “compulsion to move”. Somehow I never encountered the term when I was briefly a college chess player. Perhaps because I was never in zugzwang and was just too incompetent a player to find my good moves. I first encountered the term in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The protagonist picked up on the term as he investigated the murder of a chess player and then felt himself in one.

Combinatorial game theorists have picked up the word, and sharpened its meaning. If I understand correctly chess players allow the term to be used for any case where a player hurts her position by moving at all. Game theorists make it more dire. This may reflect their knowledge that an optimal strategy might require taking some dismal steps along the way. The game theorist formally grants the term only to the situation where the compulsion to move changes what should be a win into a loss. This seems terrible, but then, we’ve all done this in play. We all feel terrible about it.

I’d like here to give examples. But in searching the web I can find only either courses in game theory. These are a bit too much for even me to sumarize. Or chess problems, which I’m not up to understanding. It seems hard to set out an example: I need to not just set out the game, but show that what had been a win is now, by any available move, turned into a loss. Chess is looser. It even allows, I discover, a double zugzwang, where both players are at a disadvantage if they have to move.

It’s a quite relatable problem. You see why game theory has this reputation as mathematics that touches all life.


And with that … I am done! All of the Fall 2018 Mathematics A To Z posts should be at this link. Next week I’ll post my big list of all the letters, though. And, as has become tradition, a post about what I learned by doing this project. And sometime before then I should have at least one more Reading the Comics post. Thanks kindly for reading and we’ll see when in 2019 I feel up to doing another of these.

My 2018 Mathematics A To Z: Tiling


For today’s a to Z topic I again picked one nominated by aajohannas. This after I realized I was falling into a never-ending research spiral on Mr Wu, of Mathtuition’s suggested “torus”. I do have an older essay describing the torus, as a set. But that does leave out a lot of why a torus is interesting. Well, we’ll carry on.

Cartoon of a thinking coati (it's a raccoon-like animal from Latin America); beside him are spelled out on Scrabble titles, 'MATHEMATICS A TO Z', on a starry background. Various arithmetic symbols are constellations in the background.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Newshounds, Something Happens, and Infinity Refugees. His current project is Projection Edge. And you can get Projection Edge six months ahead of public publication by subscribing to his Patreon. And he’s on Twitter as @Newshoundscomic.

Tiling.

Here is a surprising thought for the next time you consider remodeling the kitchen. It’s common to tile the floor. Perhaps some of the walls behind the counter. What patterns could you use? And there are infinitely many possibilities. You might leap ahead of me and say, yes, but they’re all boring. A tile that’s eight inches square is different from one that’s twelve inches square and different from one that’s 12.01 inches square. Fine. Let’s allow that all square tiles are “really” the same pattern. The only difference between a square two feet on a side and a square half an inch on a side is how much grout you have to deal with. There are still infinitely many possibilities.

You might still suspect me of being boring. Sure, there’s a rectangular tile that’s, say, six inches by eight inches. And one that’s six inches by nine inches. Six inches by ten inches. Six inches by one millimeter. Yes, I’m technically right. But I’m not interested in that. Let’s allow that all rectangular tiles are “really” the same pattern. So we have “squares” and “rectangles”. There are still infinitely many tile possibilities.

Let me shorten the discussion here. Draw a quadrilateral. One that doesn’t intersect itself. That is, there’s four corners, four lines, and there’s no X crossings. If you have that, then you have a tiling. Get enough of these tiles and arrange them correctly and you can cover the plane. Or the kitchen floor, if you have a level floor. It might not be obvious how to do it. You might have to rotate alternating tiles, or set them in what seem like weird offsets. But you can do it. You’ll need someone to make the tiles for you, if you pick some weird pattern. I hope I live long enough to see it become part of the dubious kitchen package on junk home-renovation shows.

Let me broaden the discussion here. What do I mean by a tiling if I’m allowing any four-sided figure to be a tile? We start with a surface. Usually the plane, a flat surface stretching out infinitely far in two dimensions. The kitchen floor, or any other mere mortal surface, approximates this. But the floor stops at some point. That’s all right. The ideas we develop for the plane work all right for the kitchen. There’s some weird effects for the tiles that get too near the edges of the room. We don’t need to worry about them here. The tiles are some collection of open sets. No two tiles overlap. The tiles, plus their boundaries, cover the whole plane. That is, every point on the plane is either inside exactly one of the open sets, or it’s on the boundary between one (or more) sets.

There isn’t a requirement that all these sets have the same shape. We usually do, and will limit our tiles to one or two shapes endlessly repeated. It seems to appeal to our aesthetics and our installation budget. Using a single pattern allows us to cover the plane with triangles. Any triangle will do. Similarly any quadrilateral will do. For convex pentagonal tiles — here things get weird. There are fourteen known families of pentagons that tile the plane. Each member of the family looks about the same, but there’s some room for variation in the sides. Plus there’s one more special case that can tile the plane, but only that one shape, with no variation allowed. We don’t know if there’s a sixteenth pattern. But then until 2015 we didn’t know there was a 15th, and that was the first pattern found in thirty years. Might be an opening for someone with a good eye for doodling.

There are also exciting opportunities in convex hexagons. Anyone who plays strategy games knows a regular hexagon will tile the plane. (Regular hexagonal tilings fit a certain kind of strategy game well. Particularly they imply an equal distance between the centers of any adjacent tiles. Square and triangular tiles don’t guarantee that. This can imply better balance for territory-based games.) Irregular hexagons will, too. There are three known families of irregular hexagons that tile the plane. You can treat the regular hexagon as a special case of any of these three families. No one knows if there’s a fourth family. Ready your notepad at the next overlong, agenda-less meeting.

There aren’t tilings for identical convex heptagons, figures with seven sides. Nor eight, nor nine, nor any higher figure. You can cover them if you have non-convex figures. See any Tetris game where you keep getting the ‘s’ or ‘t’ shapes. And you can cover them if you use several shapes.

There’s some guidance if you want to create your own periodic tilings. I see it called the Conway Criterion. I don’t know the field well enough to say whether that is a common term. It could be something one mathematics popularizer thought of and that other popularizers imitated. (I don’t find “Conway Criterion” on the Mathworld glossary, but that isn’t definitive.) Suppose your polygon satisfies a couple of rules about the shapes of the edges. The rules are given in that link earlier this paragraph. If your shape does, then it’ll be able to tile the plane. If you don’t satisfy the rules, don’t despair! It might yet. The Conway Criterion tells you when some shape will tile the plane. It won’t tell you that something won’t.

(The name “Conway” may nag at you as familiar from somewhere. This criterion is named for John H Conway, who’s famous for a bunch of work in knot theory, group theory, and coding theory. And in popular mathematics for the “Game of Life”. This is a set of rules on a grid of numbers. The rules say how to calculate a new grid, based on this first one. Iterating them, creating grid after grid, can make patterns that seem far too complicated to be implicit in the simple rules. Conway also developed an algorithm to calculate the day of the week, in the Gregorian calendar. It is difficult to explain to the non-calendar fan how great this sort of thing is.)

This has all gotten to periodic tilings. That is, these patterns might be complicated. But if need be, we could get them printed on a nice square tile and cover the floor with that. Almost as beautiful and much easier to install. Are there tilings that aren’t periodic? Aperiodic tilings?

Well, sure. Easily. Take a bunch of tiles with a right angle, and two 45-degree angles. Put any two together and you have a square. So you’re “really” tiling squares that happen to be made up of a pair of triangles. Each pair, toss a coin to decide whether you put the diagonal as a forward or backward slash. Done. That’s not a periodic tiling. Not unless you had a weird run of luck on your coin tosses.

All right, but is that just a technicality? We could have easily installed this periodically and we just added some chaos to make it “not work”. Can we use a finite number of different kinds of tiles, and have it be aperiodic however much we try to make it periodic? And through about 1966 mathematicians would have mostly guessed that no, you couldn’t. If you had a set of tiles that would cover the plane aperiodically, there was also some way to do it periodically.

And then in 1966 came a surprising result. No, not Penrose tiles. I know you want me there. I’ll get there. Not there yet though. In 1966 Robert Berger — who also attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, thank you — discovered such a tiling. It’s aperiodic, and it can’t be made periodic. Why do we know Penrose Tiles rather than Berger Tiles? Couple reasons, including that Berger has to use 20,426 distinct tile shapes. In 1971 Raphael M Robinson simplified matters a bit and got that down to six shapes. Roger Penrose in 1974 squeezed the set down to two, although by adding some rules about what edges may and may not touch one another. (You can turn this into a pure edges thing by putting notches into the shapes.) That really caught the public imagination. It’s got simplicity and accessibility to combine with beauty. Aperiodic tiles seem to relate to “quasicrystals”, which are what the name suggests and do happen in some materials. And they’ve got beauty. Aperiodic tiling embraces our need to have not too much order in our order.

I’ve discussed, in all this, tiling the plane. It’s an easy surface to think about and a popular one. But we can form tiling questions about other shapes. Cylinders, spheres, and toruses seem like they should have good tiling questions available. And we can imagine “tiling” stuff in more dimensions too. If we can fill a volume with cubes, or rectangles, it’s natural to wonder what other shapes we can fill it with. My impression is that fewer definite answers are known about the tiling of three- and four- and higher-dimensional space. Possibly because it’s harder to sketch out ideas and test them. Possibly because the spaces are that much stranger. I would be glad to hear more.


I’m hoping now to have a nice relaxing weekend. I won’t. I need to think of what to say for the letter ‘U’. On Tuesday I hope that it will join the rest of my A to Z essays at this link.

Playful Mathematics Education Blog Carnival #121


Greetings one and all! Come, gather round! Wonder and spectate and — above all else — tell your friends of the Playful Mathematics Blog Carnival! Within is a buffet of delights and treats, fortifications for the mind and fire for the imagination.

121 is a special number. When I was a mere tot, growing in the wilds of suburban central New Jersey, it stood there. It held a spot of privilege in the multiplication tables on the inside front cover of composition books. On the forward diagonal, yet insulated from the borders. It anchors the safe interior. A square number, eleventh of that set in the positive numbers.

Cartoon of several circus tents, with numbered flags above them and balloons featuring arithmetic symbols. The text, in a carnival-poster font, is 'PLAYFUL MATH EDUCATION CARNIVAL'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Newshounds, Something Happens, and Infinity Refugees. His current project is Projection Edge. And you can get Projection Edge six months ahead of public publication by subscribing to his Patreon. And he’s on Twitter as @Newshoundscomic.

The First Tent

The first wonder to consider is Iva Sallay’s Find the Factors blog. She brings each week a sequence of puzzles, all factoring challenges. The result of each, done right, is a scrambling of the multiplication tables; it’s up to you the patron to find the scramble. She further examines each number in turn, finding its factors and its interesting traits. And furthermore, usually, when beginning a new century of digits opens a horserace, to see which of the numbers have the greatest number of factorizations. She furthermore was the host of this Playful Mathematics Education Carnival for August of 2018.

121 is more than just a square. It is the lone square known to be the sum of the first several powers of a prime number: it is 1 + 3 + 3^2 + 3^3 + 3^4 , a fantastic combination. If there is another square that is such a sum of primes, it is unknown to any human — and must be at least 35 digits long.

We look now for a moment at some astounding animals. From the renowned Dr Nic: Introducing Cat Maths cards, activities, games and lessons — a fine collection of feline companions, such toys as will enterain them. A dozen attributes each; twenty-seven value cards. These cats, and these cards, and these activity puzzles, promise games and delights, to teach counting, subtraction, statistics, and inference!

Next and no less incredible is the wooly Mathstodon. Christian Lawson-Perfect hosts this site, an instance of the open-source Twitter-like service Mastodon. Its focus: a place for people interested in mathematicians to write of what they know. To date over 1,300 users have joined, and have shared nearly 25,000 messages. You need not join to read many of these posts — your host here has yet to — but may sample its wares as you like.


The Second Tent

121 is one of only two perfect squares known to be four less than the cube of a whole number. The great Fermat conjectured that 4 and 121 are the only such numbers; no one has found a counter-example. Nor a proof.

Friends, do you know the secret to popularity? There is an astonishing truth behind it. Elias Worth of the MathSection blog explains the Friendship Paradox. This mind-warping phenomenon tells us your friends have more friends than you do. It will change forever how you look at your followers and following accounts.

And now to thoughts of learning. Stepping forward now is Monica Utsey, @Liveonpurpose47 of Chocolate Covered Boy Joy. Her declaration: “I incorporated Montessori Math materials with my right brain learner because he needed literal representations of the work we were doing. It worked and we still use it.” See now for yourself the representations, counting and comparing and all the joys of several aspects of arithmetic.

Take now a moment for your own fun. Blog Carnival patron and organizer Denise Gaskins wishes us to know: “The fun of mathematical coloring isn’t limited to one day. Enjoy these coloring resources all year ’round!” Happy National Coloring Book Day offers the title, and we may keep the spirit of National Coloring Book Day all the year round.

Confident in that? Then take on a challenge. Can you scroll down faster than Christian Lawson-Perfect’s web site can find factors? Prove your speed, prove your endurance, and see if you can overcome this infinite scroll.


The Third Tent

121 is a star number, the fifth of that select set. 121 identical items can be tiled to form a centered hexagon. You may have seen it in the German game of Chinese Checkers, as the board of that has 121 holes.

We come back again to teaching. “Many homeschoolers struggle with teaching their children math. Here are some tips to make it easier”, offers Denise Gaskins. Step forth and benefit from this FAQ: Struggling with Arithmetic, a collection of tips and thoughts and resources to help make arithmetic the more manageable.

Step now over to the arcade, and to the challenge of Pac-Man. This humble circle-inspired polygon must visit the entirety of a maze, and avoid ghosts as he does. Matthew Scroggs of Chalk Dust Magazine here seeks and shows us Optimal Pac-Man. Graph theory tells us there are thirteen billion different paths to take. Which of them is shortest? Which is fastest? Can it be known, and can it help you through the game?

And now a recreation, one to become useful if winter arrives. Think of the mysteries of the snowball rolling down a hill. How does it grow in size? How does it speed up? When does it stop? Rodolfo A Diaz, Diego L Gonzalez, Francisco Marin, and R Martinez satisfy your curiosity with Comparative kinetics of the snowball respect to other dynamical objects. Be warned! This material is best suited for the college-age student of the mathematical snow sciences.


The Fourth Tent

121 is furthermore the sixth of the centered octagonal numbers. 121 of a thing may be set into six concentric octagons of one, then two, then three, then four, then five, and then six of them on a side.

To teach is to learn! And we have here an example of such learning. James Sheldon writing for the American Mathematical Society Graduate Student blog offers Teaching Lessons from a Summer of Taking Mathematics Courses. What secrets has Sheldon to reveal? Come inside and learn what you may.

And now step over to the games area. The game Entanglement wraps you up in knots, challenging you to find the longest knot possible. David Richeson of Division By Zero sees in this A game for budding knot theorists. What is the greatest score that could be had in this game? Can it ever be found? Only Richeson has your answer.

Step now back to the amazing Mathstodon. Gaze in wonder at the account @dudeney_puzzles. Since the September of 2017 it has brought out challenges from Henry Ernest Dudeney’s Amusements in Mathematics. Puzzles given, yes, with answers that follow along. The impatient may find Dudeney’s 1917 book on Project Gutenberg among other places.


The Fifth Tent

Sum the digits of 121; you will find that you have four. Take its prime factors, 11 and 11, and sum their digits; you will find that this is four again. This makes 121 a Smith number. These marvels of the ages were named by Albert Wilansky, in honor of his brother-in-law, a man known to history as Harold Smith, and whose telephone number of 4,937,775 was one such.

Now let us consider terror. What is it to enter a PhD program? Many have attempted it; some have made it through. Mathieu Besançon gives to you a peek behind academia’s curtain. A year in PhD describes some of this life.

And now to an astounding challenge. Imagine an assassin readies your death. Can you protect yourself? At all? Tai-Danae Bradley invites you to consider: Is the Square a Secure Polygon? This question takes you on a tour of geometries familiar and exotic. Learn how mathematicians consider how to walk between places on a torus — and the lessons this has for a square room. The fate of the universe itself may depend on the methods described herein — the techniques used to study it relate to those that study whether a physical system can return to its original state. And then J2kun turned this into code, Visualizing an Assassin Puzzle, for those who dare to program it.

Have you overcome this challenge? Then step into the world of linear algebra, and this delight from the Mathstodon account of Christian Lawson-Perfect. The puzzle is built on the wonders of eigenvectors, those marvels of matrix multiplication. They emerge from multiplication longer or shorter but unchanged in direction. Lawson-Perfect uses whole numbers, represented by Scrabble tiles, and finds a great matrix with a neat eigenvalue. Can you prove that this is true?


The Sixth Tent

Another wonder of the digits of 121. Take them apart, then put them together again. Contorted into the form 112 they represent the same number. 121 is, in the base ten commonly used in the land, a Friedman Number, second of that line. These marvels, in the Arabic, the Roman, or even the Mayan numerals schemes, are named for Erich Friedman, a figure of mystery from the Stetson University.

We draw closer to the end of this carnival’s attractions! To the left I show a tool for those hoping to write mathematics: Donald E Knuth, Tracy Larrabee, and Paul M Roberts’s Mathematical Writing. It’s a compilation of thoughts about how one may write to be understood, or to avoid being misunderstood. Either would be a marvel for the ages.

To the right please see Gregory Taylor’s web comic Any ~Qs. Taylor — @mathtans on Twitter — brings a world of math-tans, personifications of mathematical concepts, together for adventures and wordplay. And if the strip is not to your tastes, Taylor is working on ε Project, a serialized written story with new installments twice a month.

If you will look above you will see the marvels of curved space. On YouTube, Eigenchris hopes to learn differential geometry, and shares what he has learned. While he has a series under way he suggested Episode 15, ‘Geodesics and Christoffel Symbols as one that new viewers could usefully try. Episode 16, ‘Geodesic Examples on Plane and Sphere, puts this work to good use.

And as we reach the end of the fairgrounds, please take a moment to try Find the Factors Puzzle number 121, a challenge from 2014 that still speaks to us today!

And do always stop and gaze in awe at the fantastic and amazing geometrical constructs of Robert Loves Pi. You shall never see stellations of its like elsewhere!


The Concessions Tent

With no thought of the risk to my life or limb I read the newspaper comics for mathematical topics they may illuminate! You may gape in awe at the results here. And furthermore this week and for the remainder of this calendar year of 2018 I dare to explain one and only one mathematical concept for each letter of our alphabet! I remind the sensitive patron that I have already done not one, not two, not three, but four previous entries all finding mathematical words for the letter “X” — will there be one come December? There is but one way you might ever know.

Denise Gaskins coordinates the Playful Mathematics Education Blog Carnival. Upcoming scheduled carnivals, including the chance to volunteer to host it yourself, or to recommend your site for mention, are listed here. And October’s 122nd Playful Mathematics Education Blog Carnival is scheduled to be hosted by Arithmophobia No More, and may this new host have the best of days!

What I Haven’t Had Time To Read (Late March)


So here’s a couple things I haven’t had the time to read and think about, but that I want someone to, possibly even me. First, a chain reference:

Paulos’s link in that URL was mistaken and in one of the responses to it he posted a correction. But it’s about this:

And ultimately about what seems a ridiculously impossible condition. Suppose that you have two games, both of which you expect to lose. Or two strategies to play a game, both of which you expect will lose. How do you apply them so that you maximize your chance of winning? Indeed, under the right circumstances, how can you have a better than 50% chance of winning? I have actually read this, but what I haven’t had is the chance to think about it. It may come in handy for pinball league though.

Here, MikesMathPage posts A simplified version of the Banach-Tarski paradox for kids. The Banach-Tarski paradox is one of those things I’m surprised isn’t more common in pop mathematics. It offers this wondrous and absolutely anti-intuitive consequence. Take a sphere the size of a golf ball. Slice it perfectly, using mathematically precise tools that could subdivide atoms, that is, more perfectly than mere matter could ever do. Cut it into pieces and take them apart. Then reassemble the pieces. You have two spheres, and they’re both the size of a planet. You can see why when you get this as a mathematics major the instinct is the say you’ve heard something wrong. There being as many rationals as whole numbers, sure. There being more irratonal numbers than rationals, that’s fine. There being as many points in a one-segment line segment as in an infinitely large ten-dimensional volume of space? Shaky but all right. But this? This? Still, you can kind of imagine that well, maybe there’s some weird thing where you make infinitely many cuts into uncountably infinitely many pieces and then you find out you just need five slices. Four, if you don’t use the point at the very center of the golf ball. Then you get cranky. Anyway the promise of the title, forming a version of this that kids will be comfortable with, is a big one.

This one I’m pretty sure I ended up from by way of Analysis Fact of the day. John D Cook’s Cover time of a graph: cliques, chains, and lollipops is about graphs. I mean graph theory graphs, which look kind of like those circuit-board mass transit diagrams. All dots and lines connecting them. Cook’s question: how long does it take to visit every point in one of these graphs, if you take a random walk? That is, each time you’re at a stop, you take one of the paths randomly? With equal chance of taking any of the paths connected there? There’s some obviously interesting shapes and Cook looks into how you walk over them.

That should do for now. I really need to get caught up on my reading. Please let me know if I’ve made a disastrous mistake with any of this.

Reading the Comics, September 1, 2017: Getting Ready For School Edition


In the United States at least it’s the start of the school year. With that, Comic Strip Master Command sent orders to do back-to-school jokes. They may be shallow ones, but they’re enough to fill my need for content. For example:

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 27th of August, a new strip, has Jason fitting his writing tools to the class’s theme. So mathematics gets to write “2” in a complicated way. The mention of a clay tablet and cuneiform is oddly timely, given the current (excessive) hype about that Babylonian tablet of trigonometric values, which just shows how even a nearly-retired cartoonist will get lucky sometimes.

Dan Collins’s Looks Good On Paper for the 27th does a collage of school stuff, with mathematics the leading representative of the teacher-giving-a-lecture sort of class.

Olivia Walch’s Imogen Quest for the 28th uses calculus as the emblem of stuff that would be put on the blackboard and be essential for knowing. It’s legitimate formulas, so far as we get to see, the stuff that would in fact be in class. It’s also got an amusing, to me at least, idea for getting students’ attention onto the blackboard.

Tony Carrillo’s F Minus for the 29th is here to amuse me. I could go on to some excuse about how the sextant would be used for the calculations that tell someone where he is. But really I’m including it because I was amused and I like how detailed a sketch of a sextant Carrillo included here.

Jim Meddick’s Monty for the 29th features the rich obscenity Sedgwick Nuttingham III, also getting ready for school. In this case the summer mathematics tutoring includes some not-really-obvious game dubbed Integer Ball. I confess a lot of attempts to make games out of arithmetic look to me like this: fun to do but useful in practicing skills? But I don’t know what the rules are or what kind of game might be made of the integers here. I should at least hear it out.

Michael Cavna’s Warped for the 30th lists a top ten greatest numbers, spoofing on mindless clickbait. Cavna also, I imagine unintentionally, duplicates an ancient David Letterman Top Ten List. But it’s not like you can expect people to resist the idea of making numbered lists of numbers. Some of us have a hard time stopping.

Todd: 'If I'm gonna get a good job someday, I've decided I'm gonna have to buckle down and get serious with my studies!' 'Good for you, Todd!' 'When I get to Junior High and High School, I'm gonna take stuff like trickanometree, calculatorius and alge-brah! Hee hee! Snicker! Snicker!' 'What?' 'I said Bra! Hee! Hee!' 'Better keep buckling down, bub.'
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 1st of September, 2017. So Paul Dirac introduced to quantum mechanics a mathematical construct known as the ‘braket’. It’s written as a pair of terms, like, < A | B > . These can be separated into pieces, with < A | called the ‘bra’ and | B > the ‘ket’. We’re told in the quantum mechanics class that this was a moment of possibly “innocent” overlap between what’s a convenient mathematical name and, as a piece of women’s clothing, unending amusement to male physics students. I do not know whether that’s so. I don’t see the thrill myself except in the suggestion that great physicists might be aware of women’s clothing.

Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 1st of September mentions a bunch of mathematics as serious studies. Also, to an extent, non-serious studies. I don’t remember my childhood well enough to say whether we found that vaguely-defined thrill in the word “algebra”. It seems plausible enough.

Reading the Comics, August 12, 2016: Skipping Saturday Edition


I have no idea how many or how few comic strips on Saturday included some mathematical content. I was away most of the day. We made a quick trip to the Michigan’s Adventure amusement park and then to play pinball in a kind-of competitive league. The park turned out to have every person in the world there. If I didn’t wave to you from the queue on Shivering Timbers I apologize but it hasn’t got the greatest lines of sight. The pinball stuff took longer than I expected too and, long story short, we got back home about 4:15 am. So I’m behind on my comics and here’s what I did get to.

Tak Bui’s PC and Pixel for the 8th depicts the classic horror of the cleaning people wiping away an enormous amount of hard work. It’s a primal fear among mathematicians at least. Boards with a space blocked off with the “DO NOT ERASE” warning are common. At this point, though, at least, the work is probably savable. You can almost always reconstruct work, and a few smeared lines like this are not bad at all.

The work appears to be quantum mechanics work. The tell is in the upper right corner. There’s a line defining E (energy) as equal to something including \imath \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial t}\phi(r, t) . This appears in the time-dependent Schrödinger Equation. It describes how probability waveforms look when the potential energies involved may change in time. These equations are interesting and impossible to solve exactly. We have to resort to approximations, including numerical approximations, all the time. So that’s why the computer lab would be working on this.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons! Where would I be without them? Besides short on content. The strip for the 10th depicts a pollster saying to “put the margin of error at 50%”, guaranteeing the results are right. If you follow elections polls you do see the results come with a margin of error, usually of about three percent. But every sampling technique carries with it a margin of error. The point of a sample is to learn something about the whole without testing everything in it, after all. And probability describes how likely it is the quantity measured by a sample will be far from the quantity the whole would have. The logic behind this is independent of the thing being sampled. It depends on what the whole is like. It depends on how the sampling is done. It doesn’t matter whether you’re sampling voter preferences or whether there are the right number of peanuts in a bag of squirrel food.

So a sample’s measurement will almost never be exactly the same as the whole population’s. That’s just requesting too much of luck. The margin of error represents how far it is likely we’re off. If we’ve sampled the voting population fairly — the hardest part — then it’s quite reasonable the actual vote tally would be, say, one percent different from our poll. It’s implausible that the actual votes would be ninety percent different. The margin of error is roughly the biggest plausible difference we would expect to see.

Except. Sometimes we do, even with the best sampling methods possible, get a freak case. Rarely noticed beside the margin of error is the confidence level. This is what the probability is that the actual population value is within the sampling error of the sample’s value. We don’t pay much attention to this because we don’t do statistical-sampling on a daily basis. The most normal people do is read election polling results. And most election polls settle for a confidence level of about 95 percent. That is, 95 percent of the time the actual voting preference will be within the three or so percentage points of the survey. The 95 percent confidence level is popular maybe because it feels like a nice round number. It’ll be off only about one time out of twenty. It also makes a nice balance between a margin of error that doesn’t seem too large and that doesn’t need too many people to be surveyed. As often with statistics the common standard is an imperfectly-logical blend of good work and ease of use.

For the 11th Mark Anderson gives me less to talk about, but a cute bit of wordplay. I’ll take it.

Anthony Blades’s Bewley for the 12th is a rerun. It’s at least the third time this strip has turned up since I started writing these Reading The Comics posts. For the record it ran also the 27th of April, 2015 and on the 24th of May, 2013. It also suggests mathematicians have a particular tell. Try this out next time you do word problem poker and let me know how it works for you.

Julie Larson’s The Dinette Set for the 12th I would have sworn I’d seen here before. I don’t find it in my archives, though. We are meant to just giggle at Larson’s characters who bring their penny-wise pound-foolishness to everything. But there is a decent practical mathematics problem here. (This is why I thought it had run here before.) How far is it worth going out of one’s way for cheaper gas? How much cheaper? It’s simple algebra and I’d bet many simple Javascript calculator tools. The comic strip originally ran the 4th of October, 2005. Possibly it’s been rerun since.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 12th is a bunch of gags about a mathematics fighting game. I think Amend might be on to something here. I assume mathematics-education contest games have evolved from what I went to elementary school on. That was a Commodore PET with a game where every time you got a multiplication problem right your rocket got closer to the ASCII Moon. But the game would probably quickly turn into people figuring how to multiply the other person’s function by zero. I know a game exploit when I see it.

The most obscure reference is in the third panel one. Jason speaks of “a z = 0 transform”. This would seem to be some kind of z-transform, a thing from digital signals processing. You can represent the amplification, or noise-removal, or averaging, or other processing of a string of digits as a polynomial. Of course you can. Everything is polynomials. (OK, sometimes you must use something that looks like a polynomial but includes stuff like the variable z raised to a negative power. Don’t let that throw you. You treat it like a polynomial still.) So I get what Jason is going for here; he’s processing Peter’s function down to zero.

That said, let me warn you that I don’t do digital signal processing. I just taught a course in it. (It’s a great way to learn a subject.) But I don’t think a “z = 0 transform” is anything. Maybe Amend encountered it as an instructor’s or friend’s idiosyncratic usage. (Amend was a physics student in college, and shows his comfort with mathematics-major talk often. He by the way isn’t even the only syndicated cartoonist with a physics degree. Bud Grace of The Piranha Club was also a physics major.) I suppose he figured “z = 0 transform” would read clearly to the non-mathematician and be interpretable to the mathematician. He’s right about that.

Reading the Comics, April 2, 2016: Keeping Me Busy Edition


After I made a little busy work for myself posting a Reading the Comics entry the other day, Comic Strip Master Command sent a rush of mathematics themes into the comics. So it goes.

Chris Browne’s Hagar the Horrible for the 31st of March happens to be funny-because-it’s-true. It’s supposed to be transgressive to see a gambler as the best mathematician available. But quite a few of the great pioneering minds of mathematics were also gamblers looking for an edge. It may shock you to learn that mathematicians in past centuries didn’t have enough money, and would look for ways to get more. And, as ever, knowing something secret about the way cards or dice or any unpredictable event might happen gives one an edge. The question of whether a 9 or a 10 is more likely to be thrown on three dice was debated for centuries, by people as familiar to us as Galileo. And by people as familiar to mathematicians as Gerolamo Cardano.

Hagar: 'I brought a math tutor for Hamlet!' Helga: 'Great! Does he know his stuff?' Hagar: 'Are you kidding? He's the BEST card counter in the kingdom!'
It’s funny because this it’s anachronistic for Blaise Pascal to be in this setting.

Gambling blends imperceptibly into everything people want to do. The question of how to fairly divide the pot of an interrupted game may seem sordid. But recast it as the problem of how to divide the assets of a partnership which had to halt — say, because one of the partners had to stop participating — and we have something that looks respectable. And gambling blends imperceptibly into security. The result of any one project may be unpredictable. The result of many similar ones, on average, often is. Card games or joint-stock insurance companies; the mathematics is the same. A good card-counter might be the best mathematician available.

Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 31st name-drops Diophantine equations. It’s in the service of a student resisting class joke. Diophantine equations are equations for which we only allow integer, whole-number, answers. The name refers to Diophantus of Alexandria, who lived in the third century AD. His Arithmetica describes many methods for solving equations, a prototype to algebra as we know it in high school today. Generally, a Diophantine equation is a hard problem. It’s impossible, for example, to say whether an arbitrary Diophantine equation even has a solution. Finding what it might be is another bit of work. Fermat’s Last Theorem is a Diophantine equation, and that took centuries to work out that there isn’t generally an answer.

Mind, we can say for specific cases whether a Diophantine equation has a solution. And those specific cases can be pretty general. If we know integers a and b, then we can find integers x and y that make “ax + by = 1” true, for example.

Graham Harrop’s Ten Cats for the 31st hurts mathematicians’ feelings on the way to trying to help a shy cat. I’m amused anyway.

And Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic for the 1st of April mentions Fermat’s Last Theorem. The structure of the joke is fine. If we must ask an irrelevant question of the Information Desk mathematics has got plenty of good questions. The choice makes me suspect Lemon’s showing his age, though. The imagination-capturing power of Fermat’s Last Theorem as a great unknown has to have been diminished since the first proof was found over two decades ago. It’d be someone who grew up knowing there was this mystery about xn plus yn equalling zn who’d jump to this reference.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am for the 2nd of April mentions “zero-sum games”. The term comes from the mathematical theory of games. The field might sound frivolous, but that’s because you don’t know how much stuff the field considers to be “games”. Mathematicians who study them consider “games” to be sets of decisions. One or more people make choices, and gain or lose as a result of those choices. That is a pretty vague description. It covers playing solitaire and multiplayer Civilization V. It also covers career planning and imperial brinksmanship. And, for that matter, business dealings.

“Zero-sum” games refer to how we score the game’s objectives. If it’s zero-sum, then anything gained by one player must be balanced by equal losses by the other player or players. For example, in a sports league’s season standings, one team’s win must balance another team’s loss. The total number of won games, across all the teams, has to equal the total number of lost games. But a game doesn’t have to be zero-sum. It’s possible to create games in which all participants gain something, or all lose something. Or where the total gained doesn’t equal the total lost. These are, imaginatively, called non-zero-sum games. They turn up often in real-world applications. Political or military strategy often is about problems in which both parties can lose. Business opportunities are often intended to see the directly involved parties benefit. This is surely why Randolph is shown reading the business pages.

Reading the Comics, August 10, 2015: How People Think Edition


Today’s installment of Reading the Comics has a bunch of strips that seem to touch on human psychology. That properly could always be said; what we know of mathematics is what humans have thought about. But sometimes the link between a mathematical topic and human psychology is more obvious.

Wes Molebash’s Molebashed (August 5) is a reminder that one can find interesting mental arithmetic problems anywhere. This does not mean they’re always welcome. But they can still be fun to do. For example while walking through a parking lot I noticed another state’s license plate and wondered how many six-letter combinations you could get. Well, that’s 266, obviously, but how big a number is that? Working out that sort of thing is why people have to repeat what they’re saying to me.

Mark Pett’s Mr Lowe (August 6, rerun from sometime in 2000) has a student complaining the mathematics books are two years old. The complaint is absurd but also kind of sensible. Mathematical truths are immortal, or at least they are once they’re proven. Whether something is proven is, to an extent, a cultural construct: it takes an incredible load of work to actually prove something rigorously with every step in place. We usually are content if we show enough reasoning to be confident that every step could be filled in if need be. More a matter of taste, though, is whether these truths are interesting. As an example, I mentioned just a few posts ago the versine function. There are computations which, if you’re doing them by hand, are best done with the versine function or a table of values of the versine function. But we don’t need to do that sort of work anymore, and the versine function has plunged into obscurity. Nothing that we knew about versines has stopped being true. But we’d be eccentric, at least, to make it a part of a trigonometry course in the way someone 150 years ago might have. Mathematics is not culturally neutral. Few interesting things are.

Kieran Meehan's Pros and Cons for the 7th of August, 2015.
Kieran Meehan’s Pros and Cons for the 7th of August, 2015.

Kieran Meehan’s Pros and Cons (August 7) is a probability joke. As often happens, the probability joke is built on the gambler’s fallacy. The fallacy in this case is the supposition that if one hasn’t had an accident in an unusually long while, then one must be due. Properly, though, we should ask whether accidents are independent events. If they are independent — if the chance of having an accident does not change based on whether you had an accident yesterday, or in the past week, or in the past year, or so on — then it’s silly to say you’re “due” for one. If your rate of accidents is lower than expected, you’re just having a lucky streak is all. However, I can imagine the chance of having an accident not being independent. I can imagine going a long time without accidents making someone careless about normal risks, or inexperienced in judging new ones, and that might make an accident more likely that one expects. It’s difficult to answer a probability question without understanding human psychology.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not (August 7) claims there are over 26,000 possible outcomes of tic-tac-toe. I think the claim is poorly worded, though. If by an “outcome” of a tic-tac-toe game we mean the arrangement of X and O marks then there are at most 19,683 outcomes — each of the nine cells contains an X, an O, or is left blank. That’s an overestimate, though. A grid of nine X’s can’t be a legal outcome of a game, after all; nor can one that has two X’s, one O, and six blank spaces. There have to be at least three X’s and at least two O’s, and at most four blank spaces. The number of X’s can be equal to or one greater than the number of O’s. This removes a lot of possibilities.

I think what Graziano’s Ripley’s wants to claim is there are over 26,000 different tic-tac-toe games. This I can more readily believe. There are 9 possible spaces the first player can take on the first turn; there are 8 choices for the second player on the first turn. There are 7 choices for the first player on the second turn; there are 6 choices for the second player on the second turn. And so on. So there are at most 9 * 8 * 7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1 possible ways to play out the game; that’s a total of 362,880 possibilities. But not all those possibilities are needed. If a game’s won after two and a half turns, it stops, and a lot of possible continuations are voided. I don’t have a good estimate of how many those are. And we might choose to rule out symmetries. The game in which X fills out the top row while O tries the center isn’t really different to the game in which X fills out the bottom row while O takes the center. For that matter, it’s not different to the one where X fills in the right column while O fills in the center column. If you don’t count symmetries like this as different games, then we have fewer games altogether. So if that is what Graziano means, then 26,000 may be a fair estimate of tic-tac-toe games.

That, by the way, is the strip that gave me the most to think about of this set.

Hammy is tricked into summer math again. (He's asked how many cookies he and three friends would have in total, if they each got two cookies. He gets the answer correct.)
Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 8th of August, 2015.

Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues (August 8) is another installment of Kids Doing Mathematics During Summer Vacation. This is almost the theme of the summer in mathematics comics. Possibly it’s the theme of every summer.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot (August 9) is one of those odd jokes that also is a pretty good business opportunity. Jason Fox proposes some of the many shapes that could, in principle, hold ice cream. I believe hemispheres at least are available, actually, at least to restaurants. But some of these shapes, such as pyramids or dodecahedrons or such, seem like they could be made and just happen not to have been. (Well, half-dodecahedrons, anyway.) That probably reflects that a cone or similarly narrow-based shape forces more of a given amount of ice cream to overflow the top of the cone, suggesting abundance. Geometric possibilities must give way to making the product look bigger.

Reading the Comics, July 12, 2015: Chuckling At Hart Edition


I haven’t had the chance to read the Gocomics.com comics yet today, but I’d had enough strips to bring up anyway. And I might need something to talk about on Tuesday. Two of today’s strips are from the legacy of Johnny Hart. Hart’s last decades at especially B.C., when he most often wrote about his fundamentalist religious views, hurt his reputation and obscured the fact that his comics were really, really funny when they start. His heirs and successors have been doing fairly well at reviving the deliberately anachronistic and lightly satirical edge that made the strips funny to begin with, and one of them’s a perennial around here. The other, Wizard of Id Classics, is literally reprints from the earliest days of the comic strip’s run. That shows the strip when it was earning its place on every comics page everywhere, and made a good case for it.

Mason Mastroianni, Mick Mastroianni, and Perri Hart’s B.C. (July 8) shows how a compass, without straightedge, can be used to ensure one’s survival. I suppose it’s really only loosely mathematical but I giggled quite a bit.

Ken Cursoe’s Tiny Sepuku (July 9) talks about luck as being just the result of probability. That’s fair enough. Random chance will produce strings of particularly good, or bad, results. Those strings of results can look so long or impressive that we suppose they have to represent something real. Look to any sport and the argument about whether there are “hot hands” or “clutch performers”. And Maneki-Neko is right that a probability manipulator would help. You can get a string of ten tails in a row on a fair coin, but you’ll get many more if the coin has an eighty percent chance of coming up tails.

Brant Parker and Johnny Hart’s Wizard of Id Classics (July 9, rerun from July 12, 1965) is a fun bit of volume-guessing and logic. So, yes, I giggled pretty solidly at both B.C. and The Wizard of Id this week.

Mell Lazarus’s Momma (July 11) identifies “long division” as the first thing a person has to master to be an engineer. I don’t know that this is literally true. It’s certainly true that liking doing arithmetic helps one in a career that depends on calculation, though. But you can be a skilled songwriter without being any good at writing sheet music. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are skilled engineers who are helpless at dividing fourteen into 588.

In the panel of interest, Loretta says the numbers (presumably the bills) don't add up, but they subtract down fine.
Bunny Hoest and John Reiner’s Lockhorns for the 12th of July, 2015.

Bunny Hoest and John Reiner’s Lockhorns (July 12) includes an example of using “adding up” to mean “make sense”. It’s a slight thing. But the same idiom was used last week, in Eric Teitelbaum and Bill Teitelbaum’s Bottomliners. I don’t think Comic Strip Master Command is ordering this punch line yet, but you never know.

And finally, I do want to try something a tiny bit new, and explicitly invite you-the-readers to say what strip most amused you. Please feel free to comment about your choices, r warn me that I set up the poll wrong. I haven’t tried this before.

Playful Mathematics: Sweet Add-A-Line


Last weekend I visited the Vintage Flipper World pinball museum just outside Ann Arbor, Michigan. Among the games there was Gottleib’s 1955 table Sweet Add-A-Line. It’s a peculiar table by modern standards, since nearly all the playfield is a bunch of lanes, channels through which the pinball might roll. But …

Gottlieb's 1955 pinball table _Sweet Add-A-Line_. 'It figgers!' says the backglass. It shows an underdressed 'patio secretary' on the adding machine, while a portly Mr Dithers-esque guy walks on the beach wearing striped swimming costume and holding a ledger. Also some guys in the background are singing, because the game's name demands it.
In this round of Sweet Add-A-Line I managed to get the 9, 7, 15, and 2 rollovers, lighting up the total of 33 on the lower-left adding tape. And scored overall 1,840,000 points. See the lights at the bottom. Unanswered question: so, “patio secretary” was a thing in 1955? I guess?

I apologize for the Coors sign reflected in the back glass. I didn’t even see it when I was taking the picture.

Each of the lanes is numbered. Rolling one down lights up that number in the backglass, as above. And if you roll all the numbers in one of the eight strips of tape, the game opens up bonus opportunities. It’s a fun game and certainly one of the top adding-machine-themed pinball machines I’ve ever played. I grant this is of marginal mathematical content, but, heck, I smiled.

The Internet Pinball Database has a scan of the game’s advertising flyer, which I like if nothing else for its defensive “Amusement Pinballs: as American as Baseball and Hot Dogs!” slogan.

Monopoly Chances


While the whole world surely heard about it before, I just today ran across a web page purporting to give the probabilities and expected incomes for the various squares on a Monopoly board. There are many similar versions of this table around — the Monopoly app for iPad even offers the probability that your opponents will land on any given square in the next turn, which is superlatively useful if you want to micromanage your building — and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are little variations and differences between tables.

What’s interesting to me is that the author, Truman Collins, works out the answers by two different models, and considers the results to probably be fairly close to correct because the different models of the game agree fairly well. There are some important programming differences between Collins’s two models (both of which are shown, in code written in C, so it won’t compile on your system without a lot of irritating extra work), but the one that’s most obvious is that in one model the effect of being tossed into jail after rolling three doubles in a row is modelled, while in the other it’s ignored.

Does this matter? Well, it matters a bit, since one is closer to the true game than the other, but at the cost of making a more complicated simulation, which is the normal sort of trade-off someone building a model has to make. Any simulation simplifies the thing being modelled, and a rule like the jail-on-three-doubles might be too much bother for the improvement in accuracy it offers.

Here’s another thing to decide in building the model: when you land in jail, you can either pay a $50 fine and get out immediately, or can try to roll doubles. If there are a lot of properties bought by your opponents, sitting in jail (as the rolling-doubles method implies) can be better, as it reduces the chance you have to pay rent to someone else. That’s likely the state in the later part of the game. If there are a lot of unclaimed properties, you want to get out and buy stuff. Collins simulates this by supposing that in the early game one buys one’s way out, and in the late game one rolls for doubles. But even that’s a simplification: suppose you owned much of the sides of the board after jail. (You’re likely crushing me, in that case.) Why not get out and get closer to Go the sooner, as long as it’s not likely to cost you?

That Collins tries different models and gets similar results suggest that these estimates are tolerably close to right, and often, that’s the best one can really know about how well a model of a complicated thing represents the reality.