
By Matt, on March 2nd, 2011% 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
By Matt, on January 22nd, 2011% If you’ll permit me this small indulgence, gentle reader, this week I’d like to return to a topic from last month. More precisely, I’d like to continue the series of posts that discussed how one best ought to prepare for an exam in which all N questions are given beforehand, and one knows that M questions will appear on the exam, of which the student must answer K. In my first post I discussed this problem in the context of preparing essays, while in my second I discussed it in the context of preparing for the US citizenship exam.
Apparently I’m not the only one who thought this a worthwhile problem. This problem has also made an appearance at the funfilled blog Mind Your Decisions (it’s an excellent discussion, so if this kind of thing suits you, check it out). In the comments section, discussion on this problem continues; in . . . → Read More: Test Taking, Part 3
By Matt, on January 13th, 2011% 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, pretax 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 socalled “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
By Matt, on December 17th, 2010% Last week we discussed an example of when a mathematical background might prove useful even in the least quantitative of liberal arts courses. More specifically, we asked the question: if a teacher gives you a list of N questions, tells you that M will be on an exam, and you must answer K of the questions given on the exam, what’s the minimum number of questions you should prepare to guarantee that you will be able to answer K of the questions on the exam? (Answer: N + K – M.) We also looked at the question probabilistically – namely, we saw that of the questions appearing on the exam, the number that you’ve prepared for follows a hypergeometric distribution.
As a concrete example I considered the case N = 6, M = 5, K = 3 – in this case, the minimum number of questions you should prepare to . . . → Read More: Addendum to Math Gets Around: The Humanities
By Matt, on December 6th, 2010% Unless you’re one of those suckers who goes to a school that administers final exams after the holidays (like I was), the few weeks after Thanksgiving can be quite a stressful time for students. Between exams, final papers, and working out holiday travel plans, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. For students with a quantitative bent, the days are undoubtedly spent in large part trying to memorize formulas or theorems, or on refining their understanding of certain problemsolving techniques that have been covered in their courses.
If your interests are more in line with the humanities, you may think that you are safe from the pull of mathematics. There are occasions, though, when a working knowledge of mathematics can help even in a liberal arts course.
Spicoli certainly could've benefitted from a stronger math background.
Consider the following example. Suppose you’re enrolled in a course for which the . . . → Read More: Math Gets Around: The Humanities
By Matt, on September 15th, 2010% 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 longrunning 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
By Matt, on July 28th, 2010% If you like food, Washington DC, hubris, or reality television, then chances are you are a fan of Bravo’s cooking competition Top Chef. Every year the show takes a group of aspiring chefs, places them in a house in a new city, and throws weekly challenges their way. Following the Survivor template, every week one chef is voted off, and at the end someone is crowned Top Chef (and given a large check). This season, the action takes place in our nation’s capitol.
Now, a show such as this might seem to have very little to do with mathematics. But look, and ye shall find. In the second episode of this past season, the chefs were paired up for one of the challenges. There were 16 chefs at the time, combining to make 8 pairs. The pairing was determined by drawing knives: 16 knives were . . . → Read More: Top Chef Mathematics
By Matt, on July 14th, 2010% As summer reaches its midpoint, we come to the end of another rousing year of World Cup soccer. As with any international sporting event, fans all over the world have undoubtedly had their share of ups and downs. Of all the countries in this year’s tournament, however, I think Germany may be receiving the most attention, for even though they didn’t make it into the finals, the Germans have one thing no other country has: a precognitive octopus.
At least, that is what the media would have us believe. For the past several weeks, Paul the Octopus has captured the hearts, minds, and stomachs of people around the world. He’s a charming octopus, to be sure, but it isn’t his good looks that have gotten him this far. Instead, it’s his seeming ability to correctly predict the outcome of soccer matches. As time has gone on and Paul’s predictions have . . . → Read More: Let’s Make a Deal with Paul the Octopus

