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Tue, 28 Jul 2015

Another ounce of theory

A few months ago I wrote an article here called an ounce of theory is worth a pound of search and I have a nice followup.

When I went looking for that article I couldn't find it, because I thought it was about how an ounce of search is worth a pound of theory, and that I was writing a counterexample. I am quite surprised to discover that that I have several times discussed how a little theory can replace a lot of searching, and not vice versa, but perhaps that is because the search is my default.

Anyway, the question came up on math StackExchange today:

John has 77 boxes each having dimensions 3×3×1. Is it possible for John to build one big box with dimensions 7×9×11?

OP opined no, but had no argument. The first answer that appeared was somewhat elaborate and outlined a computer search strategy which claimed to reduce the search space to only 14,553 items. (I think the analysis is wrong, but I agree that the search space is not too large.)

I almost wrote the search program. I have a program around that is something like what would be needed, although it is optimized to deal with a few oddly-shaped tiles instead of many similar tiles, and would need some work. Fortunately, I paused to think a little before diving in to the programming.

How to Solve It
How to Solve It
with kickback
no kickback

For there is an easy answer. Suppose John solved the problem. Look at just one of the 7×11 faces of the big box. It is a 7×11 rectangle that is completely filled by 1×3 and 3×3 rectangles. But 7×11 is not a multiple of 3. So there can be no solution.

Now how did I think of this? It was a very geometric line of reasoning. I imagined a 7×11×9 carton and imagined putting the small boxes into the carton. There can be no leftover space; every one of the 693 cells must be filled. So in particular, we must fill up the bottom 7×11 layer. I started considering how to pack the bottommost 7×11×1 slice with just the bottom parts of the small boxes and quickly realized it couldn't be done; there is always an empty cell left over somewhere, usually in the corner. The argument about considering just one face of the large box came later; I decided it was clearer than what I actually came up with.

I think this is a nice example of the Pólya strategy “solve a simpler problem” from How to Solve It, but I was not thinking of that specifically when I came up with the solution.

For a more interesting problem of the same sort, suppose you have six 2×2x1 slabs and three extra 1×1×1 cubes. Can you pack the nine pieces into a 3×3x3 box?

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Thu, 23 Jul 2015

Mystery of the misaligned lowercase ‘p’

I've seen this ad on the subway at least a hundred times, but I never noticed this oddity before:

Specifically, check out the vertical alignment of those ‘p’s:

Notice that it is not simply an unusual font. The height of the ‘p’ matches the other lowercase letters exactly. Here's how it ought to look:

At first I thought the designer was going for a playful, informal logotype. Some of the other lawyers who advertise in the subway go for a playful, informal look. But it seemed odd in the context of the rest of the sign.

As I wondered what happened here, a whole story unfolded in my mind. Here's how I imagine it went down:

  1. The ‘p’, in proper position, collided with the edge of the light-colored box, or overlapped it entirely, causing the serif to disappear into the black area.

  2. The designer (Spivack's nephew) suggested enlarging the box, but there was not enough room. The sign must fit a standard subway car frame, so its size is prescribed.

  3. The designer then suggested eliminating “LAW OFFICES OF”, or eliminating some of the following copy, or reducing its size, but Spivack refused to cede even a single line. “Millions for defense,” cried Spivack, “but not one cent for tribute!”

  4. Spivack found the obvious solution: “Just move the up the ‘p’ so it doesn't bump into the edge, stupid!” Spivack's nephew complied. “Looks great!” said Spivack. “Print it!”

I have no real reason to believe that most of this is true, but I find it all so very plausible.

[ Addendum: Noted typographic expert Jonathan Hoefler says “I'm certain you are correct.” ]

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Sun, 19 Jul 2015

Math.SE report 2015-04

[ Notice: I originally published this report at the wrong URL. I moved it so that I could publish the June 2015 report at that URL instead. If you're seeing this for the second time, you might want to read the June article instead. ]

A lot of the stuff I've written in the past couple of years has been on Mathematics StackExchange. Some of it is pretty mundane, but some is interesting. I thought I might have a little meta-discussion in the blog and see how that goes. These are the noteworthy posts I made in April 2015.

  • Languages and their relation : help is pretty mundane, but interesting for one reason: OP was confused about a statement in a textbook, and provided a reference, which OPs don't always do. The text used the symbol !!\subset_\ne!!. OP had interpreted it as meaning !!\not\subseteq!!, but I think what was meant was !!\subsetneq!!.

    I dug up a copy of the text and groveled over it looking for the explanation of !!\subset_\ne!!, which is not standard. There was none that I could find. The book even had a section with a glossary of notation, which didn't mention !!\subset_\ne!!. Math professors can be assholes sometimes.

  • Is there an operation that takes !!a^b!! and !!a^c!!, and returns !!a^{bc}!! is more interesting. First off, why is this even a reasonable question? Why should there be such an operation? But note that there is an operation that takes !!a^b!! and !!a^c!! and returns !!a^{b+c}!!, namely, multiplication, so it's plausible that the operation that OP wants might also exist.

    But it's easy to see that there is no operation that takes !!a^b!! and !!a^c!! and returns !!a^{bc}!!: just observe that although !!4^2=2^4!!, the putative operation (call it !!f!!) should take !!f(2^4, 2^4)!! and yield !!2^{4\cdot4} = 2^{16} = 65536!!, but it should also take !!f(4^2, 4^2)!! and yield !!4^{2\cdot2} = 2^4 = 256!!. So the operation is not well-defined. And you can take this even further: !!2^4!! can be written as !!e^{4\log 2}!!, so !!f!! should also take !!f(e^{2\log 4}, e^{2\log 4})!! and yield !!e^{4(\log 4)^2} \approx 2180.37!!.

    They key point is that the representation of a number, or even an integer, in the form !!a^b!! is not unique. (Jargon: "exponentiation is not injective".) You can raise !!a^b!!, but having done so you cannot look at the result and know what !!a!! and !!b!! were, which is what !!f!! needs to do.

    But if !!f!! can't do it, how can multiplication do it when it multiplies !!a^b!! and !!a^c!! and gets !!a^{b+c}!!? Does it somehow know what !!a!! is? No, it turns out that it doesn't need !!a!! in this case. There is something magical going on there, ultimately related to the fact that if some quantity is increasing by a factor of !!x!! every !!t!! units of time, then there is some !!t_2!! for which it is exactly doubling every !!t_2!! units of time. Because of this there is a marvelous group homomophism $$\log : \langle \Bbb R^+, \times\rangle \to \langle \Bbb R ,+\rangle$$ which can change multiplication into addition without knowing what the base numbers are.

    In that thread I had a brief argument with someone who thinks that operators apply to expressions rather than to numbers. Well, you can say this, but it makes the question trivial: you can certainly have an "operator" that takes expressions !!a^b!! and !!a^c!! and yields the expression !!a^{bc}!!. You just can't expect to apply it to numbers, such as !!16!! and !!16!!, because those numbers are not expressions in the form !!a^b!!. I remembered the argument going on longer than it did; I originally ended this paragraph with a lament that I wasted more than two comments on this guy, but looking at the record, it seems that I didn't. Good work, Mr. Dominus.

  • how 1/0.5 is equal to 2? wants a simple explanation. Very likely OP is a primary school student. The question reminds me of a similar question, asking why the long division algorithm is the way it is. Each of these is a failure of education to explain what division is actually doing. The long division answer is that long division is an optimization for repeated subtraction; to divide !!450\div 3!! you want to know how many shares of three cookies each you can get from !!450!! cookies. Long division is simply a notation for keeping track of removing !!100!! shares, leaving !!150!! cookies, then !!5\cdot 10!! further shares, leaving none.

    In this question there was a similar answer. !!1/0.5!! is !!2!! because if you have one cookie, and want to give each kid a share of !!0.5!! cookies, you can get out two shares. Simple enough.

    I like division examples that involve giving cookies to kids, because cookies are easy to focus on, and because the motivation for equal shares is intuitively understood by everyone who has kids, or who has been one.

    There is a general pedagogical principle that an ounce of examples are worth a pound of theory. My answer here is a good example of that. When you explain the theory, you're telling the student how to understand it. When you give an example, though, if it's the right example, the student can't help but understand it, and when they do they'll understand it in their own way, which is better than if you told them how.

  • How to read a cycle graph? is interesting because hapless OP is asking for an explanation of a particularly strange diagram from Wikipedia. I'm familiar with the eccentric Wikipedian who drew this, and I was glad that I was around to say "The other stuff in this diagram is nonstandard stuff that the somewhat eccentric author made up. Don't worry if it's not clear; this author is notorious for that."

  • In Expected number of die tosses to get something less than 5, OP calculated as follows: The first die roll is a winner !!\frac23!! of the time. The second roll is the first winner !!\frac13\cdot\frac23!! of the time. The third roll is the first winner !!\frac13\cdot\frac13\cdot\frac23!! of the time. Summing the series !!\sum_n \frac23\left(\frac13\right)^nn!! we eventually obtain the answer, !!\frac32!!. The accepted answer does it this way also.

    But there's a much easier way to solve this problem. What we really want to know is: how many rolls before we expect to have seen one good one? And the answer is: the expected number of winners per die roll is !!\frac23!!, expectations are additive, so the expected number of winners per !!n!! die rolls is !!\frac23n!!, and so we need !!n=\frac32!! rolls to expect one winner. Problem solved!

    I first discovered this when I was around fifteen, and wrote about it here a few years ago.

    As I've mentioned before, this is one of the best things about mathematics: not that it works, but that you can do it by whatever method that occurs to you and you get the same answer. This is where mathematics pedagogy goes wrong most often: it proscribes that you must get the answer by method X, rather than that you must get the answer by hook or by crook. If the student uses method Y, and it works (and if it is correct) that should be worth full credit.

    Bad instructors always say "Well, we need to test to see if the student knows method X." No, we should be testing to see if the student can solve problem P. If we are testing for method X, that is a failure of the test or of the curriculum. Because if method X is useful, it is useful because for some problems, it is the only method that works. It is the instructor's job to find one of these problems and put it on the test. If there is no such problem, then X is useless and it is the instructor's job to omit it from the curriculum. If Y always works, but X is faster, it is the instructor's job to explain this, and then to assign a problem for the test where Y would take more time than is available.

    I see now I wrote the same thing in 2006. It bears repeating. I also said it again a couple of years ago on itself in reply to a similar comment by Brian Scott:

    If the goal is to teach students how to write proofs by induction, the instructor should damned well come up with problems for which induction is the best approach. And if even then a student comes up with a different approach, the instructor should be pleased. ... The directions should not begin [with "prove by induction"]. I consider it a failure on the part of the instructor if he or she has to specify a technique in order to give students practice in applying it.

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Fri, 03 Jul 2015

The annoying boxes puzzle: solution
I presented this logic puzzle on Wednesday:

There are two boxes on a table, one red and one green. One contains a treasure. The red box is labelled "exactly one of the labels is true". The green box is labelled "the treasure is in this box."

Can you figure out which box contains the treasure?

It's not too late to try to solve this before reading on. If you want, you can submit your answer here:

The treasure is in the red box
The treasure is in the green box
There is not enough information to determine the answer
Something else:


There were 506 total responses up to Fri Jul 3 11:09:52 2015 UTC; I kept only the first response from each IP address, leaving 451. I read all the "something else" submissions and where it seemed clear I recoded them as votes for "red", for "not enough information", or as spam. (Several people had the right answer but submitted "other" so they could explain themselves.) There was also one post attempted to attack my (nonexistent) SQL database. Sorry, Charlie; I'm not as stupid as I look.

	 66.52%  300 red
	 25.72   116 not-enough-info
	  3.55    16 green
	  2.00     9 other
	  1.55     7 spam
	  0.44     2 red-with-qualification
	  0.22     1 attack

	100.00   451 TOTAL
One-quarter of respondents got the right answer, that there is not enough information given to solve the problem, Two-thirds of respondents said the treasure was in the red box. This is wrong. The treasure is in the green box.


Let me show you. I stated:

There are two boxes on a table, one red and one green. One contains a treasure. The red box is labelled "exactly one of the labels is true". The green box is labelled "the treasure is in this box."

The labels are as I said. Everything I told you was literally true.

The treasure is definitely not in the red box.

No, it is actually in the green box.

(It's hard to see, but one of the items in the green box is the gold and diamond ring made in Vienna by my great-grandfather, which is unquestionably a real treasure.)

So if you said the treasure must be in the red box, you were simply mistaken. If you had a logical argument why the treasure had to be in the red box, your argument was fallacious, and you should pause and try to figure out what was wrong with it.

I will discuss it in detail below.


The treasure is undeniably in the green box. However, correct answer to the puzzle is "no, you cannot figure out which box contains the treasure". There is not enough information given. (Notice that the question was not “Where is the treasure?” but “Can you figure out…?”)

(Fallacious) Argument A

Many people erroneously conclude that the treasure is in the red box, using reasoning something like the following:

  1. Suppose the red label is true. Then exactly one label is true, and since the red label is true, the green label is false. Since it says that the treasure is in the green box, the treasure must really be in the red box.
  2. Now suppose that the red label is false. Then the green label must also be false. So again, the treasure is in the red box.
  3. Since both cases lead to the conclusion that the treasure is in the red box, that must be where it is.

What's wrong with argument A?

Here are some responses people commonly have when I tell them that argument A is fallacious:

"If the treasure is in the green box, the red label is lying."

Not quite, but argument A explicitly considers the possibility that the red label was false, so what's the problem?

"If the treasure is in the green box, the red label is inconsistent."

It could be. Nothing in the puzzle statement ruled this out. But actually it's not inconsistent, it's just irrelevant.

"If the treasure is in the green box, the red label is meaningless."

Nonsense. The meaning is plain: it says “exactly one of these labels is true”, and the meaning is that exactly one of the labels is true. Anyone presenting argument A must have understood the label to mean that, and it is incoherent to understand it that way and then to turn around and say that it is meaningless! (I discussed this point in more detail in 2007.)

"But the treasure could have been in the red box."

True! But it is not, as you can see in the pictures. The puzzle does not give enough information to solve the problem. If you said that there was not enough information, then congratulations, you have the right answer. The answer produced by argument A is incontestably wrong, since it asserts that the treasure is in the red box, when it is not.

"The conditions supplied by the puzzle statement are inconsistent."

They certainly are not. Inconsistent systems do not have models, and in particular cannot exist in the real world. The photographs above demonstrate a real-world model that satisfies every condition posed by the puzzle, and so proves that it is consistent.

"But that's not fair! You could have made up any random garbage at all, and then told me afterwards that you had been lying."

Had I done that, it would have been an unfair puzzle. For example, suppose I opened the boxes at the end to reveal that there was no treasure at all. That would have directly contradicted my assertion that "One [box] contains a treasure". That would have been cheating, and I would deserve a kick in the ass.

But I did not do that. As the photograph shows, the boxes, their colors, their labels, and the disposition of the treasure are all exactly as I said. I did not make up a lie to trick you; I described a real situation, and asked whether people they could diagnose the location of the treasure.

(Two respondents accused me of making up lies. One said:

There is no treasure. Both labels are lying. Look at those boxes. Do you really think someone put a treasure in one of them just for this logic puzzle?
What can I say? I did put a treasure in a box just for this logic puzzle. Some of us just have higher standards.)

"But what about the labels?"

Indeed! What about the labels?

The labels are worthless

The labels are red herrings; the provide no information. Consider the following version of the puzzle:

There are two boxes on a table, one red and one green. One contains a treasure.

Which box contains the treasure?

Obviously, the problem cannot be solved from the information given.

Now consider this version:

There are two boxes on a table, one red and one green. One contains a treasure. The red box is labelled "gcoadd atniy fnck z fbi c rirpx hrfyrom". The green box is labelled "ofurb rz bzbsgtuuocxl ckddwdfiwzjwe ydtd."

Which box contains the treasure?

One is similarly at a loss here.

(By the way, people who said one label was meaningless: this is what a meaningless label looks like.)

There are two boxes on a table, one red and one green. One contains a treasure. The red box is labelled "exactly one of the labels is true". The green box is labelled "the treasure is in this box."

But then the janitor happens by. "Don't be confused by those labels," he says. "They were stuck on there by the previous owner of the boxes, who was an illiterate shoemaker who only spoke Serbian. I think he cut them out of a magazine because he liked the frilly borders."

Which box contains the treasure?

The point being that in the absence of additional information, there is no reason to believe that the labels give any information about the contents of the boxes, or about labels, or about anything at all. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. It is true not just in annoying puzzles, but in the world in general. A box labeled “fresh figs” might contain fresh figs, or spoiled figs, or angry hornets, or nothing at all.
What is the Name of this Book?
What is the Name of this Book?
with kickback
no kickback

Why doesn't every logic puzzle fall afoul of this problem?

I said as part of the puzzle conditions that there was a treasure in one box. For a fair puzzle, I am required to tell the truth about the puzzle conditions. Otherwise I'm just being a jerk.

Typically the truth or falsity of the labels is part of the puzzle conditions. Here's a typical example, which I took from Raymond Smullyan's What is the name of this book? (problem 67a):

… She had the following inscriptions put on the caskets:
Portia explained to the suitor that of the three statements, at most one was true.

Which casket should the suitor choose [to find the portrait]?

Notice that the problem condition gives the suitor a certification about the truth of the labels, on which he may rely. In the quotation above, the certification is in boldface.

A well-constructed puzzle will always contain such a certification, something like “one label is true and one is false” or “on this island, each person always lies, or always tells the truth”. I went to What is the Name of this Book? to get the example above, and found more than I had bargained for: problem 70 is exactly the annoying boxes problem! Smullyan says:

Good heavens, I can take any number of caskets that I please and put an object in one of them and then write any inscriptions at all on the lids; these sentences won't convey any information whatsoever.
(Page 65)

Had I known ahead of time that Smullyan had treated the exact same topic with the exact same example, I doubt I would have written this post at all.

But why is this so surprising?

I don't know.

Final notes

16 people correctly said that the treasure was in the green box. This has to be counted as a lucky guess, unacceptable as a solution to a logic puzzle.

One respondent referred me to a similar post on lesswrong.

I did warn you all that the puzzle was annoying.

I started writing this post in October 2007, and then it sat on the shelf until I got around to finding and photographing the boxes. A triumph of procrastination!

[ Addendum 20150911: Steven Mazie has written a blog article about this topic, A Logic Puzzle That Teaches a Life Lesson. ]

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Wed, 01 Jul 2015

The annoying boxes puzzle
Here is a logic puzzle. I will present the solution on Friday.

There are two boxes on a table, one red and one green. One contains a treasure. The red box is labelled "exactly one of the labels is true". The green box is labelled "the treasure is in this box."

Can you figure out which box contains the treasure?

The treasure is in the red box
The treasure is in the green box
There is not enough information to determine the answer
Something else:
Starting on 2015-07-03, the solution will be here.

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