persi diaconis

No (fair) Dice

Persi Diaconis is an ex-magician. He left the world of professional magic to become a professor of statistics at Stanford. But those influences are still reflected in his work as many of the simple tools used in the exploration of statistics — coins, cards, dice — are also favourite tools of the magician. So nothing specifically to do with magic, but if you wanted to know how fair your super-complicated D&D dice were.

Watch to the end to get the link to the hidden part 2!

More Magical Mathematics

This will be the first of a series of three posts dedicated to mathematics, for no other reason then the coincidence that they all appeared in my life more or less at the same time. I'll begin with an interview with Persi Diaconis on The 7th Avenue Project. It's actually a little bit out of date (over a year old) and it relates, ostensibly, to his 2011 book Magical Mathematics (co-written with Ron Graham) Professor Persi Diaconis is a remarkable figure in magic who falls into that category of "greatest magicians no one has ever heard of." Provided you're willing to allow being interviewed for podcasts, being a published author and appearing on the front page of the New York Times never being heard of.

The interview is fascinating (and long). Perhaps it's the confirmation bias talking, but he seems to spend a great deal more time discussing magic than math — not that I would think of complaining. It also highlights the important but subtle difference between magical mathematics and mathematical magic. I noticed when the interviewer tripped up on the title and realized that there really is an important difference.

The stories involving Dai Vernon and Ricky Jay are also moving. Enjoy.

The twisted mind of a mathematician

The domain where I've had the the most — what you might call — formal academic training is mathematics. Having spent years tutoring students in math (which means, by implication you're spending time with students who are less adept than the average at math) I understand that there is a definite peculiarity in the way people approach problems in math. Ordinary thinking involves guessing an answer — taking a shot in the dark — then trying to justify the guess as quickly as possible so you can move on to new problems. This manifests with students prepping for multiple choice tests saying something like, "It's B, isn't it?". And if I nod yes, they're right and they get to go onto the next question. But, as happens more often, I don't nod and that guess hasn't brought them any closer to a solution to the problem.

Math involves stepping back and looking at the problem from many different angles. It seems extraordinarily counter-intuitive if your goal is simply to get the pencil mark in the bubble for B.

Professor Persi Diaconis, in addition to being a professor of statistics, is also a world renowned magician, so when his work pops up in my news feed, I perk up. This is a wonderful example of the application of mathematical thinking to a very mundane problem. I guess the typical reaction to be a transition from this guy's so weird to this guy's so freakin' smart