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The Probability Games

Though we are still a few months away from the start of the summer blockbuster season, the scuttlebutt is that The Hunger Games, opening this weekend, is expected to do huge business (and by huge, I mean upwards of $100 million). Based on the 2008 Suzanne Collins book of the same name, this property is the hottest new thing in the realm of young adult fiction, and in this post-Harry Potter, nearly-post-Twilight era of cinema history, the timing could not be better for movie executives. The book is the first of a trilogy, so whether you like it or not, these films will be with us for the next few years.

Cover image for the book.

If you have not read the book, or have no idea what I’m talking about in general, a trailer for the film can be found here (sorry, embedding has been disabled for the . . . → Read More: The Probability Games

CNN Light Years guest post: Why a different voting system might be better

Hi Everyone,

In an attempt to spread the joy and cheer of mathematics to a broader audience, starting this month, I will occasionally be writing articles for CNN’s new science and technology blog, Light Years. Fear not, most of my content will still be appearing at Math Goes Pop, and every time one of my guest posts goes live, I will let you know about it here as well. Today the topic is voting systems, something I have discussed on this blog before. Here’s a piece of the intro to pique your interest:

When the results of an election (primary or otherwise) run counter to our desires, it is easy to scapegoat the political process. The right person didn’t win, we may argue, because the system itself is broken. The two-party system, for example, is sometimes cited as a leading cause of the current dysfunction in Washington. But perhaps much . . . → Read More: CNN Light Years guest post: Why a different voting system might be better

Pi Day vs. Half Tau Day

By now my views on Pi Day are well documented (see earlier posts from 2011 and 2009 if you’re curious). Recently, though, I’ve decided to try to be a little less curmudgeonly when it comes to math holidays. Consequently, while it would be easy to provide snarky commentary on articles with particularly egregious mathematical errors, this year I will try to restrain myself.

As I’ve said before, one of my biggest problems with Pi day is that the activities are, for the most part, a little ridiculous, and don’t actually do anything to better the general populace’s understanding of mathematics. Last year, I explained why contests involving the recitation of digits of are silly, so this year I’d like to offer an alternative. Why not use the day as an opportunity to debate with students the relative merits of and ?

Of course, I’m talking about more than Greek letters . . . → Read More: Pi Day vs. Half Tau Day

Shameless Self Promotion #3

Hi everyone,

A while back I was asked to contribute an essay to a book on mathematics and popular culture. I’m pleased to announce that this book is now available for purchase! There are some great essays in this book – I’ll let you decide how mine stacks up with the rest – and it also features a foreword by Keith Devlin, a Stanford University mathematician who you may know as NPR’s Math Guy.

I suggested they use my face instead, but they respectfully declined.

The price of entry is a little steep ($45), but if you’re someone interested in buying many copies (maybe you are a teacher, or maybe you just have a huge crush on David Krumholtz), I can get you a discount on bulk orders.

To whet your appetite, the title of my essay is Counting with the Sharks: Math-Savvy Gamblers in Popular Culture. Here’s the . . . → Read More: Shameless Self Promotion #3

And the Award for Best Voting System Goes to…

Last year, the Center for Election Science wrote up a quick blog post on the Oscars to motivate a discussion of voting reform. Since 2009, the Oscars have used Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) to decide the winner of the prestigious Best Picture award, but there is growing backlash against this voting system because of a number of strange properties it possesses. For example, the winner of an IRV election may not be the most favored candidate among the voters; for another strange example, it can sometimes be to your advantage to rank your preferred candidate last instead of first. Here’s a video explaining some of these weird features:

Instead of using IRV, a strong argument could be made for using Score voting (also known as Range voting). I’ve discussed these voting systems before (see here for a discussion of the 2010 Oakland mayoral race, for example), so . . . → Read More: And the Award for Best Voting System Goes to…

Leap Day Bonus Post

Hello gentle reader. This week is a bit hectic for me, so I don’t have time for a proper update. But what with it being Leap Day and all, I thought it only appropriate to share some kind of gift with you.

If you have the time, below is an excellent documentary from the 90′s on Fermat’s Last Theorem and Andrew Wiles, the man who set his sights on proving it. It’s a great documentary, and may have somewhat blown my mind when I first saw it as a high school student. So take some time out from your Leap Day (it is a bonus block of 24 hours, after all) and check it out!

Interview Roulette

Recently I started reading How Would You Move Mount Fuji?, a 2003 book written by William Poundstone on the history and popularization of the puzzle-focused job interview. The presence of logic puzzles or seemingly unanswerable questions was once a staple of many job interviews in Silicon Valley, and while the book is much more than just a laundry list of good puzzles, it’s hard to write about puzzles without giving some juicy examples.

Today I’d like to talk about one of the earliest puzzles discussed in the books, and show how one can pretty quickly poke and prod this brain teaser until it becomes a different beast entirely. Here it is, with wording taken from the book:

“Let’s play a game of Russian roulette,” begins one interview stunt that is going the rounds at Wall Street investment banks. “You are tied to your chair and can’t get up. Here’s a . . . → Read More: Interview Roulette

Are the 49ers skilled, or just lucky? Part 2.

In my previous post, I asked whether the San Francisco 49ers’ improbably successful season was due more to luck (say, by being granted a relatively easy schedule), or due to real improvements in the skill of the team. By comparing the 2011 season with the 2010 season and correcting the schedule for the number of wins and losses each team accrued, I concluded that the level of difficulty of the team’s schedule year over year was roughly the same, and therefore more of their success should be attributed to skill rather than luck.

In this follow-up, I’d like to dig a little deeper into measurements of the 49ers’ skill, in an attempt to further bolster the above claim. If you are a football fan, then you are fortunate to have me write two football-themed posts in a row. If you are not a football fan, fear not; with the season . . . → Read More: Are the 49ers skilled, or just lucky? Part 2.