Look, but don’t Scratch

Ladies and gentlemen, please excuse my prolonged absence. Life occasionally has a habit of getting in the way of the schedule that I’d like to keep; in this case, it means I haven’t been able to update over the past month. Fear not though, for now I have returned, and I am ready to dish on math and pop culture.

In that spirit, I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to mention this article from Wired last month on the man who cracked the code for several scratch lottery ticket games. Mohan Srivastiva, geological statistician by day and mathematical rogue by night, discovered a pattern in certain scratch lottery tickets back in 2003, but I’m sure (as this article suggests) he’s received a bit more publicity since the Wired article hit.

I highly recommend reading the whole article, but I’ll outline the gist of his discovery . . . → Read More: Look, but don’t Scratch

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Brief PSA

Hi everyone. This week is a little hectic for me, so I won’t have time for a full-fledged post until probably this weekend. I thought I would take an opportunity to respond to this, though, since a few people have sent it my way. I’d just like to remind all mathematically-minded folks that our rep in this country is bad enough already, so please, let’s all agree to not pee on our colleagues’ office doors. In fact, I don’t think it should be too hard to take it a step further, and actively remove ourselves from any situation in which someone could even reasonably accuse us of peeing on their door (office or otherwise).

Then again, maybe this guy was putting his own spin on the latest dance craze.

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Lost Winnings

Last week, two very lucky people won the Mega Millions lottery jackpot (here‘s a profile on one of the winners). This particular lottery is played in 41 out of the 50 states, and these two individuals will share a combined, pre-tax total of $380 million.

But are they so lucky after all? Setting aside the common notion that winning the lottery can actually do you more harm than good, some people are concerned because of the numbers themselves that made the winning ticket.

The numbers drawn for this particular lottery were 4, 8, 15, 25, 47, and 42. Note that the last number is lower than the number that precedes it because it is the so-called “Mega Number,” which is drawn from a different pool than the first five. For those of you with a penchant for televised dramas set in tropical locations, you may note that these numbers bear . . . → Read More: Lost Winnings

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Pi, I Shake My Fist at You

A couple of days ago I watched a video that really depressed me. Here‘s a link to a local news story from Ankeny, Iowa – I’d encourage you to take a look at the news clip there (unfortunately, I can’t embed it here). The story concerns a 6th grade student who has memorized the decimal expansion of pi to 340 or so digits.

In and of itself, this might not seem like a particularly newsworthy achievement – as any Pi Day aficionado can tell you, there are people who have memorized more digits. Perhaps what makes it newsworthy is the fact that the student is only twelve years old, or, more perversely, the fact that his accomplishment came in response to the challenge of his math teacher, who asked his students to memorize as many digits of pi as possible. By far the most depressing part of the video is . . . → Read More: Pi, I Shake My Fist at You

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Instant Runoff Voting in Oakland

Earlier this month, Oakland elected its first Asian American to the less than coveted role of city mayor. Jean Quan emerged victorious this election day, although at one point she was trailing her opponent by 11 percentage points. Understood in context, however, her victory is perhaps less surprising – rather than winning by Plurality, Quan won under Oakland’s Instant Runoff Voting system.

I don't know much about Oakland politics, but this picture sure makes her look ready for business.

What’s the difference? For most elections in the United States, voters are instructed to cast their vote for the individual who they would most like to see get elected. These votes are tallied, and the one with the most votes is declared the winner. In contrast, the Instant Runoff Voting system asks voters to rank several candidates at once – this extra information is used to automatically determine the outcome . . . → Read More: Instant Runoff Voting in Oakland

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A Sufficient Mathematical Background

A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post ran an op-ed written by G. V. Ramanathan, emeritus Professor in mathematics, statistics, and computer science, entitled “How much math do we really need?” As the title suggests, Ramanathan uses his space in the paper to argue against the grain of conventional wisdom when it comes to mathematics education; his point is that American students are actually receiving too MUCH math, rather than not enough. It’s an appealing thesis, especially for those looking for an excuse to embrace their own math phobia, but ultimately I find it to be less than responsible.

Consider, for example, the following passage:

How much math do you really need in everyday life? Ask yourself that — and also the next 10 people you meet, say, your plumber, your lawyer, your grocer, your mechanic, your physician or even a math teacher.

Unlike literature, history, politics and music, . . . → Read More: A Sufficient Mathematical Background

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RIP Benoît Mandelbrot

It has already made the internet rounds, but it seems appropriate, given his popular appeal, to remark on the passing of mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot. Mandelbrot, perhaps best well known for coining the term fractal (and for his related popular work on the subject), died last week at the age of 85.

Mandelbrot’s popularization of fractal geometry garnered him quite a bit of attention beginning in the 1980′s. There is even a fractal named after him, the so-called “Mandelbrot set,” which, like many fractals, is simple to generate, but looks complicated.

It’s no coincidence that popularity in fractals rose in step with advancing computer technology. Without computers to perform the tedious calculations necessary for fractal generation (and by extension, to output all the pretty pictures), the field received much less attention. Contrary to popular belief, though, Mandelbrot was not the first to consider these ideas – indeed, many properties of fractal . . . → Read More: RIP Benoît Mandelbrot

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Stand Up to Questionable Odds

If you went to the movies in Los Angeles this summer, you may have seen the following ad from Stand Up to Cancer, a charitable program whose telethon aired last Friday night. A clear homage to MasterCard‘s long-running Priceless campaign, this ad swaps out prices for odds, ending with the sobering fact that 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will be diagnosed with some type of cancer in their lifetime.

Presumably, those cancer odds are taken from The American Cancer society, which has the relevant stats posted here. When it comes to some of the other claims in the ad, though, I couldn’t help but be skeptical.

Take the bowling claim, for instance. This ad would have you believe that your odds of bowling a perfect game are 1 in 11,500. This seems quite high, even when I . . . → Read More: Stand Up to Questionable Odds

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