Monthly Archives: December 2013

Virtual Hyenas, Markov Chains, and Random Knights

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

It’s amazing how a small step can lead to a chain reaction of adventure.

Arend Hintze

Arend Hintze

Recently a reader named Nico left a comment on the Math Munch post where I shared the game Loops of Zen. He asked why the game has that name. Curious, I looked up Dr. Arend Hintze, whose name appears on the game’s title page. This led me to Arend’s page at the Adami Lab at Michigan State University. Arend studies how complex systems—especially biological systems—evolve over time.

Here is a video of one of Arend’s simulations. The black and white square is a zebra. The yellow ones are lions, the red ones are hyenas, and guess who’s hungry?

Arend’s description of the simulation is here. The cooperative behavior in the video—two hyenas working together to scare away a lion—wasn’t programmed into the simulation. It emerged out of many iterations of systems called Markov Brains—developed by Arend—that are based upon mathematical structures called Markov chains. More on those in a bit.

You can read more about how Arend thinks about his multidisciplinary work on biological systems here. Also, it turns out that Arend has made many more games besides Loops of Zen. Here’s Blobs of Zen, and Ink of Zen is coming out this month! Another that caught my eye is Curve, which reminds me of some of my favorite puzzle games. Curve is still in development; here’s hoping we’ll be able to play it soon.

Arend has agreed to do an interview with Math Munch, so share your questions about his work, his games, and his life below!

Eric Czekner

Eric Czekner

Arend’s simulations rely on Markov chains to model animal behavior. So what’s a Markov chain? It’s closely related to the idea of a random walk. Check out this video by digital artist, musician, and Pure Data enthusiast Eric Czekner. In the video, Eric gives an overview of what Markov chains are all about and shows how he uses them to create pieces of music.

On this page, Eric describes how he got started using Markov chains to make music, along with several of his compositions. It’s fascinating how he captures the feel of a song by creating a mathematical system that “generates new patterns based on existing probabilities.”

Now there’s a big idea: exploring something randomly can capture structures that might be hard to perceive otherwise. Here’s one last variation on the Markov chain theme that involves a pure math question. This blog post ponders the question: what happens when a knight takes a random walk—or random trot?—on a chessboard? It includes some colorful images of chessboards along the way.

How likely it is that a knight lands on each square after five moves, starting from b1.

How likely it is that a knight lands on each square after five moves, starting from b1.

The probabili

How likely it is that a knight lands on each square after 200 moves, starting from b1.

The blogger—Leonid Kovalev—shows in his analysis what happens in the long run: the number of times a knight will visit a square will be proportional to the number of moves that lead to that square. For instance, since only two knight moves can reach a corner square while eight knight moves can reach a central square, it’s four times as likely that a knight will finish on a central square after a long, long journey than on a corner square. This idea works because moving a knight around a chessboard is a “reversible Markov chain”—any path that a knight can trace can also be untraced. The author also wrote a follow-up post about random queens.

It’s amazing the things you can find by chaining together ideas or by taking a random walk. Thanks for the inspiration for this post, Nico. Keep those comments and questions coming, everyone—we love hearing from you.

Bon appetit!

Math Meets Art, Quarto, and Snow!

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

article-0-19F9E81700000578-263_634x286… And, if you happen to write the date in the European way (day/month/year), happy Noughts and Crosses Day! (That’s British English for Tic-Tac-Toe Day.) In Europe, today’s date is 11/12/13– and it’s the last time that the date will be three consecutive numbers in this century! We in America are lucky. Our last Noughts and Crosses Day was November 12, 2013 (11/12/13), and we get another one next year on December 13 (12/13/14). To learn more about Noughts and Crosses Day and find out about an interesting contest, check out this site. And, to our European readers, happy Noughts and Crosses Day!

p3p13Speaking of Noughts and Crosses (or Tic-Tac-Toe), I have a new favorite game– Quarto! It’s a mix of Tic-Tac-Toe and another favorite game of mine, SET, and it was introduced to me by a friend of mine. It’s quite tricky– you’ll need the full power of your brain to tackle it. Luckily, there are levels, since it can take a while to develop a strategy. Give it a try, and let us know if you like it!


Looking to learn about some new mathematical artists? Check out this article, “When Math Meets Art,” from the online magazine Dark Rye. It profiles seven mathematical artists– some of whom we’ve written about (such as Erik and Martin Demaine, of origami fame, and Henry Segerman), and some of whom I’ve never heard of. The work of string art shown above is by artist Adam Brucker, who specializes in making “unexpected” curves from straight line segments.

gauss17_smallAnother of my favorites from this article is the work of Robert Bosch. One of his specialities is making mosaics of faces out of tiles, such as dominoes. The article features his portrait of the mathematician Father Sebastien Truchet made out of the tiles he invented, the Truchet tiles. Clever, right? The mosaic to the left is of the great mathematician Gauss, made out of dominoes. Check out Robert’s website to see more of his awesome art.

Finally, it snowed in New York City yesterday. I love when it snows for the first time in winter… and that got me wanting to make some paper snowflakes to celebrate! Here’s a video by Vi Hart that will teach you to make some of the most beautiful paper snowflakes.

Hang them on your windows, on the walls, or from the ceiling, and have a very happy wintery day! Bon appetit!

Jim Loy, Exploding Dots, and an Advent Calendar

Jim Loy

Jim Loy

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch! We’ve got a mathematical advent calendar for you, two new puzzle pages, and a whole course’s worth of videos and problems to think about. Let’s get into it.

Up first, if you like you can read all about Jim Loy (and just about anything else) on his enormous website. The thing I want to share with you are Jim’s puzzle pages. You could pull out some toothpicks or spaghetti and try these matchstick puzzles, or perhaps you want to give his maze a try. Or maybe you just want to learn about the pig pen cipher, a kind of code.

Matchstick Puzzles

Matchstick Puzzles

Jim's Maze

Jim’s Maze

pig pen cipher

Pig Pen Cipher

advent calendar 2Up next, some math in the holiday spirit. Plus Magazine has a nice little advent calendar going on again this year. They’re counting down to Christmas by posting their “favourite bits of maths” – a new post each day. On the website you can see preview pictures for each day, which has me pretty excited. What could #7 be? What is going on in 18?! Check out #2. It’s a nice little explanation of a classic math story about Achilles and the tortoise. (Zeno’s Paradox). Plus Magazine is a great website in general, but you have to be prepared to do some reading. According to their about page,

Plus is an internet magazine which aims to introduce readers to the beauty and the practical applications of mathematics. A lot of people don’t have a very clear idea what “real” maths consists of, and often they don’t realise how many things they take for granted only work because of a generous helping of it.”

BONUS:  Take a look at the Plus Mag puzzle page!

Finally, you might remember James Tanton for his partition videos. Well, he just released a really cool series of videos and math activities that’s completely free and online. It’s kind of an entire math course (but it’s unlike any course you’ve  seen before), and it’s called “Exploding Dots.” As James says in the intro video above, this is his favorite topic of all time! The course is broken up into 4 lessons, with a handful of videos in each lesson, and there are some really nice questions to think about. I’ve studied math for many years at this point, but there were lots of things that surprised me.

If you’re ready to dig in, here’s a link to Lesson 1.1 Base Machines.

Have a great week, and bon appetit!