Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Logic Puzzle collection and Dropping Phones

Recently, Mathbabe put out a request for riddles. There are some good links in the comments:
We've played with puzzles from almost all of these sources in the past, but this was a good opportunity to put together a nice list.

The one that stood out to me was on FiveThirtyEight. That's a site I read frequently, especially during this US election season ... and I was totally unaware of The Riddler feature. We kicked off with the oldest puzzle from their archive: Best way to drop a smartphone.

Breaking stuff

Right away, J1 and J2 loved the theme and were into questions about whether they could somehow keep the phones, if they weren't broken, or utterly destroy them, if they were broken. We talked about setting an upper bound with a very simple strategy of starting on the 1st floor and working up each floor. That's not a great answer, but it got them into modifications and improving strategies.

Through the conversation, it was interesting to see them start with the idea that the drops for one of the phones would be de minimis and could be ignored, but then start to pay attention to that aspect. Also, they had to grapple with the idea of balancing the number of drops that would be required in different cases.

While we didn't get to the optimal strategy, but the kids managed to get a version that, at worst, would take 19 drops for the 100 story building. Their intuition was based around taking the square root of 100. They could see that this probably wasn't the best answer, since there were still cases that, at worst, would take 10 drops and others that, at worst, would take 19.

Can you do better?

Smaller before bigger

The puzzle page poses the same challenge for a 1000 story building. However, we found something interesting when working on the version for a 10 story building: there is  strategy where all worst cases take the same number of drops, but it is not the optimal strategy!

It is a little hard to write about this without disclosing the strategy, but here's a hint:

  • 4 + 3 + 2 + 1 = 10 and 5 + 4 = 9
  • We are always allowed to assume that the phones will break if dropped from the top floor of the building

This led to another extension: what size buildings will have the same issues as for a 10 story building?

Probability comes in

Another extension is to think about the expected number of drops required and strategies that minimize this. Crucially, this extension introduces the idea about our prior beliefs about the sturdiness of the phones: where do we think the phones are likely to break, what is our confidence?

We didn't pursue this extension very far, but it did lead to some interesting conversations about terminal velocities. For those who want to follow that thread, this (other) stack exchange thread might suit you: How to figure out height to achieve terminal velocity.

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