Monday, January 23, 2012

How Long is a Piece of String

This blogpost is more on the book "How long is a piece of string?" by Rob Eastaway and Jeremy Wyndham.

About the book

The book is about the hidden mathematics of everyday life. This title is for anyone wanting to remind themselves - or discover for the first time - that maths is relevant to almost everything we do. Get-rich-quick scams, blind dates, taxi meters and many others have links with intriguing mathematical problems that are explained in this book.

How Long is a Piece of String

With my interest piqued by the title of book, I did some internet searches to find out the meaning of the phrase. "How long is a piece of string" is an idiom. The website provided the most straightforward answer as follows:

If someone has no idea of the answer to a question, they can ask 'How long is a piece of string?' as a way of indicating their ignorance.

However, it did not capture adequately the mathematical aspects of the phrase, which appears to have done well as follows:

Intrinsically a piece of string has length but that length is unknown hence the
: the phrase 'how long is a piece of string' means that the quantitative answer is not known and there is an implicate understanding that the answer will be difficult to find given the information available.

How Do Conmen Get Rich

Let's move on to the articles in the book. Today, I will like to share more about the second article, how do conmen get rich, which reminds me of the phrase "when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is".

In particular, the football con detailed the experience of George Tindle, a football fan who was being sent many free tips on which football team will win in the coming match. As it turned out, the scam was deceptively simple.

To start with 8,000 emails were sent out to people known to have some sort of interest in football. All possible outcomes were being sent to different recipents. For example in the first match between Team A and B, there would be 4,000 emails "predicting" Team A as the winner and the remaining 4,000 emails betting Team B. Of course, 4,000 would be "right", while the other half would delete the email and think no more about it. This is repeated for the next match. Due to the sheer size of emails in the start point, there would still be a few hundreds around 5 rounds. 250 to be exact (you could work out the math but that is not the point) and they would be immensely impressed so much so that some would be willing to hand over money to the organiser in exchange for a "good tip".

This concept reminded me of what Malcolm Gladwell shared in his article "Blowing Up". The relevant excerpt is reproduced as follows:

For Taleb, then, the question why someone was a success in the financial marketplace was vexing. Taleb could do the arithmetic in his head. Suppose that there were ten thousand investment managers out there, which is not an outlandish number, and that every year half of them, entirely by chance, made money and half of them, entirely by chance, lost money. And suppose that every year the losers were tossed out, and the game replayed with those who remained. At the end of five years, there would be three hundred and thirteen people who had made money in every one of those years, and after ten years there would be nine people who had made money every single year in a row, all out of pure luck. Niederhoffer, like Buffett and Soros, was a brilliant man. He had a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. He had pioneered the idea that through close mathematical analysis of patterns in the market an investor could identify profitable anomalies. But who was to say that he wasn't one of those lucky nine? And who was to say that in the eleventh year Niederhoffer would be one of the unlucky ones, who suddenly lost it all, who suddenly, as they say on Wall Street, "blew up"?

I hope I have convinced you that mathematics is everywhere and we can apply it in our day-to-day life as long as we make an effort to do so. Do it, it's FUN!

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