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A Quick Puzzle From OSCON

I recently returned from the O’Reilly Open Source Convention in Portland Oregon. In the final talk of the event, Paul Fenwick, always an amazing presenter, offered a puzzle during his talk that I thought I’d share.

I will offer the puzzle below, but the best way to experience it is to watch Paul’s talk, Mindware Upgrades For Fun And Profit.  No special technical or other background is necessary to enjoy it.

Albert is looking at Betty.  Betty is looking at Charlie.  Albert is a computer programmer.  Charlie is not.  Is there a computer programmer looking at a non-computer programmer?

What was most interesting to me is that the audience of about a thousand really smart people is then invited to raise their hands for “Yes” “No” or “Not Enough Information” and all but fewer than 10 people raised their hand for the same wrong answer!  I failed along with the vast majority, and the other wrong answer outweighed the right answer (which might have had zero votes… I don’t remember.)

If no one posts the right answer here after a while, I’ll come back with an explanation, but I do encourage you to go watch Paul explain.


Comments (5)

Yoak: Denominations of money

A friend posed this to me today:

Devise an alternate set of denominations for coins and bank notes requiring a minimum number of denominations and such that any amount from $0.01 to $100 could be paid with four units of currency.

I’ve looked at this from another perspective before after it was discussed on Freakonomics but that has to do with minimizing the average number of coins needed and doesn’t go too much into the math.

What’s remarkable is that my friend nearly instantly came to an upper bound that isn’t huge and after hours five of us have failed to improve upon it.  I’ll avoid stating that bound here for now, but will come back and add it to the comments in a bit if there is no traction.

 Another interesting tidbit is that unlike U.S. denominations where a greedy algorithm can verify a minimal number of units that are required (take as many of the largest as you can, then as many of the next largest, etc.) denominations where the denominations aren’t multiples of each other don’t allow this.  Making 15 in 12-5-1 shouldn’t be 12-1-1-1 — it should be 5-5-5.  Even doing verification requires dynamic programming solutions.



Comments (7)

Yoak: Garbled Marbles

It’s been a while since I posted a puzzle and happened upon a nice one today.

You find yourself babysitting a friend’s marble collection while he’s away at a conference of collectors.  The housekeeper, being an honest type, admits to having disturbed one of the displays.  She assures you that she returned all the marbles and shows you ten marbles laid out thus:

* * * * *

* * * * *

That looks fine, but the note to the side of it says five lines of four marbles each.  Since this is two lines of five marbles, must there be marbles missing or can they be laid out in a manner consistent with the note?



Comments (2)

Morris: A Day at the Races

Royal Ascot
25 horses have entered your race meeting.  You have to award ribbons to the three fastest, in order.

Only five horses can compete in one race.  

Assuming each horse always runs at the same pace, and that all 25 horses have different abilities, what is the fewest number of races you can use?

You can’t use stopwatches, you can only use the finishing order of each race.

UPDATE: Thanks for all the great comments.  At the time of writing we’ve had three correct answers; Mike and Blaise in the comments and Jim via email.

I have a follow up question: can you prove that this answer is minimal?  There is a neat spot, can you find it?

Apparantly this was an interview question for Facebook.  I found it in this list of impossible interview questions.  Math Factor afficionados will recognise some of these problems and not find them so impossible.  Have fun!

Comments (8)

Morris: Finding Fibonacci


If you are anything like me, and I hope for your sake that you aren’t, then you will often ask yourselves questions such as:

    Late at night, when they’re peckish, do Vampires ever bite themselves?

    Was Hitler’s moustache homage to Charlie Chaplin?

    Can I find an exact formula for the Fibonacci sequence?

I can only answer one question. Which one?  

Yup, it’s the last one.


In Yoak: Miles, Kilometers and Fibonacci Numbers Jeff showed a lot of fun stuff about the Fibonacci sequence and how it relates to the golden ratio. He didn’t explain how this comes about.

The Golden Ratio, phi (I’ll use g), was beloved by classical architects and is still loved today. It was thought to be the most aesthetically pleasing ratio. It was the ratio used for the Parthenon.

It has a simple definition, if you have a rectangle with proportions 1:g then you can remove a square from one end and the leftover is a rectangle with the same proportions.

From that you can work out that g2 = g + 1 and g = 1 + 1/g. There is a revealing symmetry in that last equation which is better shown by g – 1/g = 1, if you switch the sign and invert g then you get another solution. 


    g = (sqrt(5) + 1)/2 ~= 1.618

    1/g= (sqrt(5) – 1)/2 ~= 0.618


The Fibonacci sequence goes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 …

The Fibonacci rule is Fn+2 = Fn+1 + Fn

There are lots of sequences that fit this rule. Any particular sequence is fixed by specifying two elements, for example the actual Fibonacci sequence starts 1, 1. Another sequence that fits the rule is 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18, 29 …

We note that if xn+2 = xn+1 + xn then the sequence 1, x, x2, x3, x4 … satisfies the Fibonacci rule.

We can solve for x. Dividing by xn and rearranging gives x2 – x – 1 = 0.

This gives two solutions for x:

        g =                      (1+sqrt(5))/2

       (-1/g) = (1-g) = (1-sqrt(5))/2

Both of these solutions for x generate sequences that satisfy the Fibonacci rule.

    1, g, g2, g3

    1, (1-g), (1-g)2, (1-g)3

But we can go further. Put Xn = Agn + B(1-g)n  then Xn satisfies the Fibonacci rule.

    A + B, Ag + B(1-g), Ag2 + B(1-g)2, Ag3 + B(1-g)3

A particular sequence that satisfies the Fibonacci rule is fixed by just two entries. I claim that we can always find values for A and B that will create any sequence which satisfies the Fibonacci rule.

We have two simultaneous equations with two unknowns, A and B. This always gives a unique solution (it matters that (1, g) and (1, 1-g) are linearly independent vectors). For example lets calculate A and B for the actual Fibonacci sequence. F1 =1 and F2 = 1. Using the Fibonacci rule backwards gives F0 = 0.

So     F0 = A + B = 0      F1 = Ag + B(1-g) = 1

Working this through

    B = -A

    Ag – A(1-g) = 1

    A(2g -1) = 1

    A(2(sqrt(5) + 1)/2 -1) = 1

    A = 1/sqrt(5)

Which solves to give A = 1/sqrt(5), B = -1/sqrt(5)  

So we have : Fn = (gn – (1-g)n) /sqrt(5)

Now there is something very bizarre going on here. We know that the Fibonacci sequence is a sequence of integers. We have found that it has an exact formula but the formula involves lots of irrational numbers, raising them to powers, adding and dividing them. Somehow this process always ends up with an integer. Knowing that we will always get an integer we can short-circuit the calculation.

Note that 1/ sqrt(5) is about 0.447, (1-g)/ sqrt(5) is about -0.276 and that (1-g)n/ sqrt(5) always has a magnitude of less than a half. Knowing that we will always get an integer we can just ignore this term and round to the nearest integer.

    Fn = round(gn /sqrt(5)) for n >= 0

It is also true that

    F-n = (-1)n+1round(gn /sqrt(5)) for n >= 0

To see this remember that 1-g = -1/g so Fn = (gn – (-1/g)n) /sqrt(5). For negative n it is the first term that is smaller than a half and can be ignored. I’ll let you work out the rest.

In fact extending the Fibonacci sequence backwards gives … -3, 2, -1, 1, 0, 1, 1, 2, 3 …

What is most wonderful about this is that the ratio between successive members of the Fibonacci sequence is about g. It becomes very close very quickly. Also wonderful is that this technique extends to other sequences which are defined by similar rules. In general you can find an exact formula, involving taking powers of irrational numbers, which will always give you the integer you were looking for.

I find that quite amazing!

It shows that you cannot take one part of mathematics in isolation, if you want to understand integers you have to understand irrational numbers, and for many sequences complex numbers. It’s all interconnected, you can’t pick and choose. Even the simplest parts of mathematics are tied up in the most complex!

All good fun though!


Morris: Follow Up: Golden Earring – Radar Love


In Golden Earring – Radar Love I had a big problem.

This the solution so please read the problem first and have a go at solving it yourself.

My wife has lost a golden earring, I can buy a bunch of similar earrings but I know one is a fake.

I can weigh two groups of earrings, each weighing can give one of three results: they weigh the same; the left group is heavier, the right group is heavier.

The question is – how many earrings can be in the bunch I buy and leave me confident that I can find the fake with just three weighings?

Read the rest of this entry »


Morris: Futurama – Prisoner of Benda

Futurama: The Prisoner of Benda

Smart shows have smart writers, and none are smarter than the writers of Futurama.  We’ve seen a number of clever math references in Futurama and the Simpsons.  Now a fully fledged theorem is written up on screen.

Sweet Clyde's Inversion Theorem

If I had a TV show that’s exactly what I would do.  As it is I just post on Math Factor.

The theorem is by staffer and Math PhD Ken Keeler.  In the show Harlem Globetrotter, and all-round genius, Sweet Clyde comes up with a theorem to solve an apparantly intractible problem.

To quote Professor Farsnworth ‘Who says pure maths isn’t useful in the real world!’

Professor Farnsworth invents a mind-switching machine.  A lot of plot later nine people have their minds in the wrong bodies.  Unfortunatley the machine has a limitation, it cannot process the same two bodies twice.

There seems to be no way out until Clyde and EthanTate enter.  Clyde comes up with ‘Sweet Clyde’s Inversion Theorem’ and saves the day.

He shows that however many people there are, and however mixed up their minds, it is always possible to get every mind back in the right body as long as you have two extra bodies to help, and you know your maths!

This is the mess they are in:

Fry’s mind is in Zoidberg’s body

Professor’s mind is in Bender’s body

Bucket’s mind is in Amy’s body

Leela’s mind is in Professor’s body

Emporer’s mind is in Bucket’s body

Hermies’ mind is in Leela’s body

Zoidberg’s body is in Fry’s body

Bender’s mind is in Emperor’s body

Amy’s mind is in Hermies’ body

Take a moment to solve this yourselves.  Remember you need to get each mind back in the right body by repeatedly switching the minds of two bodies.  No switch can be repeated.  You cannot switch two of the original nine bodies because we have lost track and assume those combinations have already been used.  So every switch must involve Clyde and/or Ethan.  

Read on for the solution.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (3)

Morris: Golden Earring – Radar Love

Goose-pimple time - I LOVE  this songTrauma at home; my wife has just lost one of her golden earnings.  Fortunately I know someone who will sell me a bunch of similar earrings, for a price!

I know that one of his earrings is fake, but that’s okay because I can work out which one, replace my wife’s earring and still make a profit. 

I will have to bring out my earring weighing machine, the Radar Love, which lets me compare two groups of earrings and tells me whether one group is heavier or lighter than the other, or whether they are the same wieght.  This is the only clue I will get.

The Radar Love only has three charges.  At most how many earrings can I have bought and still be confident that I will find the fake?

Can you find a general formula for a given number of charges?


Morris: The Crack that Lets the Light In

“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” Leonard Cohen, ‘Anthem’

Berlin Wall Chink of Light


It is the things that don’t make sense that teach us the most.  

If you want to learn something new, start with something you don’t understand, something which doesn’t make sense.

However much you know there will always be chinks in your knowledge, chinks of light that may lead you to somewhere beautiful.


Consider this:

On a Sunday afternoon your prison guard tells you that he will conduct a surprise inspection at 10am over the next seven days.

You work out that he can’t wait until next Sunday, because then it wouldn’t be a surprise. 

So, could he do it on Saturday?

On which days would the inspection be a genuine surprise?

There is no consensus on this, which is why I describe it as a chink of light, a way to get at something deeper.  But what do you think?

Comments (12)

Morris: RIP Martin Gardner: 1914 – 2010

Topsy-Turvy GardnerMartin Gardner died this week.

One of his books is on my coffee table.  This is not a coincidence, there is always one of his books on my coffee table.

Many of my puzzles have come from these books.

I know him as the greatest collator and populiser of math puzzles, but of course his talents went far beyond this.

Rather than try to do my own second-rate obituary I will just point you at some links.

Scientific American, for whom he wrote for 25 years.,%201914-2010

Make your own Martin Gardner Flexagons here,

The Daily Telegraph on his deconstruction of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books,

He wrote over 70 books.  Nothing I can say can begin to encompass his long and amazing life.  He is someone you need to discover for yourself.

He is already missed.


Comments (2)

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