Math Models and a Birthday Problem resource

Mathematical models is one of those ideas that students should know, but don't. Even after they've studied them. Ask your class the following: "A coin is tossed. What's the probability that it lands as heads?".

Most students have are quick to say 1/2 but that's wrong--the correct answer is we don't know the probability for any particular coin. We could use experimental probability to estimate it but even that's an approximate answer. The probability of heads that the students think is reality is actually a based on a mathematical model with a "fair coin". Mathematical models are approximations of reality. Unfortunately most students who have had some probability don't know coin flipping is based on a model and think the number of outcomes determines the probability (not realizing the equally likely assumption is an assumption which could be false). Some of these problems invariably trace back to the teachers who have taught them incorrectly.

Mathematician William Feller was a well known expert in probability who wrote a classic book An Introduction to Probability Theory and Its Applications in which you can find (by click on "Look Inside") the following quote on page 19: "As a matter of fact, whenever refined statistical measures have been used to check on actual coin tossing, the result has invariably been that head and tail are not equally likely. And yet we stick to our model of an "ideal" coin even no good coins exist. We preserve the model not merely for its logical simplicity, but essentially for its usefulness and its applicability.".

The coin flipping model has two assumptions built into it:

  1. There are two outcomes (heads and tails)
  2. The two outcomes are equally likely.

Since its possible for coins to balance on their sides (nickels and quarters more easily than a dime), it's possible (though admittedly remote) for a coin to land on its side. And it seems like most people have had experiences of a dropped coin which lands on its side only to roll away. Heck, it's even happened during a football game. This paper estimates the odds of an American nickel landing on its edge as 1/6000. Tested.com says that a study (broken link) indicates "...the "randomness" of a toss is actually weighted ever so slightly towards the side of the coin that's facing upwards when a flip begins....The paper, written by statistics and math professors from Stanford and UC Santa Cruz, also points out that a perfect coin toss can reproduce the same result 100 percent of the time.".

So coin tossing is a simple example of a mathematical model that students should learn. Another model is the famous "Birthday Problem". As I mentioned in an earlier post:

Answering the Birthday Problem involves creating a mathematical model. The model rests on two assumptions that aren't true and should be discussed with the class:

  • there are 365 days in a year (Feb 29th is ignored to simplify the model)
  • birthdays are equally likely to be on any given day (Also false. This varies from country to country; in the US birthdays are more towards the middle of the year. Count back 9 months and you've got cold weather. Nothing random there.)

I'm revisiting this post because I ran across a chart showing the distribution of birthdays referred to in the second point above. The Gizmodo post "How Common is Your Birthday" says, "The visualization used data from 1973 to 1999 to chart popular birthdays and figured out when the most popular time to pop out babies were."  So now you have a source to back up my claim and a nice chart to use in the classroom.

If you teach the Birthday Problem then you should get a copy of the chart or bookmark the page above.

Here are some stories that caught my attention this week:

  • In an earlier post I pointed out the case of a high school student accused of stealing a backpack who was in prison for almost 3 years because he had been accused of stealing a backpack and would not plead guilty. The charges were eventually dropped and, because he was able to specify the specific dates on two occasions when he was abused, video has surfaced of these events. Democracy Now! has  "Explosive video obtained by The New Yorker depicts extreme violence inside New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex." and interviews New Yorker staff writer Jennifer Gonnerman, who has reported on the issue.
  • NY Post reports on, "A copy of the state’s English Language Arts test that students took last week was leaked online Wednesday in an apparent act of sabotage by anti-testing activists......“This is a political act and it will be interesting to see whether [test-creation company] Pearson or the state Department of Education understands it as that or goes after them for civil or criminal liability,” said Brooklyn College education Professor David Bloomfield, who called the post an act of “civil disobedience.”"
  • The Washington Post covers the widespread resistance of New York to Common Core testing: ,"Newsday has translated raw numbers into percentages, estimating that over 40 percent of all Long Island 3-8 students refused to take last week’s ELA Common Core state tests. Numbers in some districts reached well over 70 percent, with at least one district exceeding 80 percent. It appears that no more thanseven of the 124 districts on the island will meet the testing threshold of 95 percent. And that is before this week’s math tests, when opt-out numbers are expected to climb, as they did last year...It seems clear that the final 2015 tally will well exceed 200,000 students. New York State will likely not make the minimum 95 percent federal requirement for testing.."
  • Shamkir 2015 has ended in victory for Magnus Carlsen. Chessbase has the report here. Anand took second with Caruana and So tied for third. Anand's second place performance has put him at number 2 in the world with a 2803.7 Live Chess Rating. I never thought he'd get there again. At 45 with his peak years ago and he's still in the hunt: incredible!
  • My sympathies go out to Nigel Short. Not for his 1.5 - 8.5 versus Kasparov (Chessbase only has part 1 out here) but for the savage "beating" the "PC-police" are inflicting on him. The brouhaha, discussed here, starts with Nigel's comment, "“Men and women's brains are hard-wired very differently, so why should they function in the same way? I don't have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do. Likewise, she doesn't feel embarrassed in asking me to manoeuvre the car out of our narrow garage. One is not better than the other, we just have different skills. It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.”" which became sensationalized with The Telegraph's article, " Nigel Short: 'Girls just don’t have the brains to play chess".  You can even see Nigel defending his common sense position on Sky News and being given the absurd argument that he's wrong because J Polgar has a plus record against him. Given that there are distinct differences in the hardwiring  of male versus female brains (not to mention the differences between males and between females) and the study Short points out, it's difficult to believe his comments have become so controversial. Sorry Nigel! You deserve better.
  • Huffington Post has an article about Ramanujan whose birthday was April 26th. The brilliant mathematician who was most definitely wired differently than others: "The biggest question is how an untrained teenager, and later young adult who repeatedly flunked out of college in his native south India (generally the area of Madras, today's Chennai), was able to obtain--all on his own--mathematical expressions that later would take some of the world's leading mathematicians years and even decades to ascertain and prove.".
  • I've deleted the CTAN Mail Archive link and replaced it with the updates gmane.org. They were notifying about many changes in LaTeX that never made it to the other link. The link is CTAN announcements, located on the sidebar.

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