Thursday, February 16, 2017

More Man Who Counted (gaps and notes)

As previously mentioned, we have been reading The Man Who Counted. While the story is good and there are nice math puzzles, we've found some of our best conversations have come from errors or weaknesses in the book. Here are three examples:

How old was Diophantus?

In chapter 24, we encounter a puzzle to figure out how old Diophantus was when he died. In summary, the clues are:

  1. he was a child for 1/6 of his life
  2. he was an adolescent for 1/12 of his life. (J1: "what's that?" J0: "a teenager")
  3. childless marriage for 1/7 of his life
  4. Five more years passed, then had a child
  5. The child got to half its father's age, then died.
  6. Diophantus lived for four more years
Perhaps we are wrong about our interpretation of the clues, but we noticed two things:
(a) the answer is not a whole number of years.
(b) the answer given in the book doesn't fit the clues.

For the first part, it seems a natural assumption of these types of puzzles that we are only working with whole number years. Sometimes, this is an interesting assumption to directly challenge.
Here, since the clues involve a second person (Diophantus's child) we felt whole numbers were a strong assumption. Also, the name Diophantus, you know?

Each clue required some discussion for us to agree on the interpretation. The one that seems most open is the fifth clue. In particular, did the child live until its age was half of the age of its father at the time of birth or to the point that, contemporaneously, it was half its father's age?

For completeness, I'd note that neither interpretation matches the book's answer. The first interpretation does allow a whole number answer, but it doesn't give whole numbers for all the listed segments of Diophantus's life.

Just so you can check for yourself, the solution given in the book is 84 years old.

How do you fix it?
We discussed several possible fixes:

  • accept answers that aren't whole numbers or require whole number segments for each clue. This allows us to take the alternative interpretation of the fifth clue (though that still isn't satisfying) or to accept the clues and just take a new answer. This isn't satisfactory because... Diophantus.
  • Change clue 4 or clue 5 to match the book's answer. This approach seemed to fix the puzzle without distorting it or changing the mathematics required to analyze it.
  • Change clue 1, 2, or 3. While possible, these seemed to open the possibility of changing the character of the puzzle. Also, these fractions were plausible based on our own experience of human life spans.
Of course, an even more satisfying answer would be to introduce a further variable and make the puzzle into one that makes heavy(ier) use of the integer restriction.

Clever Suitors

In chapter 31, Beremiz is confronted by a nice logic puzzle. Three suitors are put to a test, each is blindfolded and has disc strapped to his back. The background of the discs: other than color, the discs are all identical, there are five to choose from, 2 black and 3 white.

The first suitor is allowed to see the colors of the discs on the backs of his two competitors, then required to identify the color of his own disc and explain his reasoning. He fails and is dismissed.

The second suitor is allowed to see the disc on the back of the third suitor, then required to identify the color of his own disc and explain his reasoning. He fails and is dismissed.

Finally, the third suitor is required to identify the color of his own disc and explain his reasoning.  He succeeds.

Weakness 1
As a logic puzzle, we enjoyed this. Our problems came from the context in the story. This challenge was set to the three suitors as a way of fairly judging between them by finding the most clever suitor. However, this process was clearly unfair. In fact, it is inherent in the solution that it was impossible for the first and second suitors to determine the color of their own discs.

This led to a nice discussion about who really held the power in this process: the person who structured the problem by deciding what color disc should be on which suitor and what order they would be allowed to give their answers.

Extensions:
  • consider all arrangements of discs. Are there any arrangements where none of the suitors can answer correctly?
  • What is the winning fraction for each suitor? If you were a suitor, would you prefer to answer first, second, or third?

Weakness 2
Our second objection was non-mathematical, but again related to the story context. The fundamental problem wasn't how to choose a suitor. The fundamental problem was how the king could remain peacefully friendly toward all the suitors' home nations through this process.

For this discussion, we went back to the story of Helen of Sparta, which we'd read a long time ago in the D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths. Of course, that also led to discussion of the division of the golden apples, another puzzle we all felt surely could have been solved more effectively with some mathematical reasoning...

The Last Matter of Love

The last puzzle of the book is in chapter 33. It is another logic puzzle, again intended to test the merit of a suitor in marriage. The test:

  • there are five people
  • two have black eyes and always tell the truth
  • three have blue eyes and always lie
  • the suitor is permitted to ask three of them, in turn, a "simple" question each.
  • the suitor must determine the eye color of all five people
As a logic puzzle, we readers get some extra information:
  1. The first person is asked: "what are the color of your eyes?" The answer is unintelligible.
  2. The second is asked: "What did the first person say?" The answer is "blue eyes."
  3. The third is asked: "What are the eye colors of the first and second people?" The answers are "the first has black eyes and the second has blue eyes."
Simple questions
Our first objection was the part about asking "simple" questions. Having developed our taste for these types of puzzles through the knights and knaves examples of Raymond Smullyan (RIP, we loved your work!!!), the third question really bothered us. If you're going to go that far, why not ask the third person for the color eyes of all five people?

Personally, I would prefer that the puzzle require us to ask each person a single yes/no question.

As an extension: can you solve the puzzle with that restriction? 

Getting lucky
Again, we felt that this puzzle didn't meet the requirements of the context: to prove the worthiness of the suitor. Putting aside the question of whether this is really an appropriate way to decide whether two people should be allowed to marry, the hero here got lucky.

Extension: what eye color for the third person would have caused the suitor to fail?
Extension: what answer from the third person would have caused the suitor to fail?
Extension: for what arrangement of eye colors would the questions asked by the suitor guarantee success?
Extension: what was the suitors' probability of success, given those were the three questions asked?

Waste
Our final objection was the simple waste in the first question. From a narrative perspective, this is justified and even seems made to serve the purposes of the suitor. However, it opens another idea:
can you solve the puzzle, regardless of eye color arrangement, with only two questions?

Feel free to test this with yes/no questions only or your own suitable definition of a "simple" question.

The power of...

As a final thought, let me say that I think errors and ambiguity in a text are a feature, not a bug. It is another great opportunity for us to emphasize that mathematics is about the power of reasoning, not the power of authority.

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