You're reading: Blackboard Bold

How to Win at Pointless

For the benefit of overseas readers, or British readers in full-time employment, I should briefly explain the concept of daytime TV quiz phenomenon Pointless. The pinnacle of British public service broadcasting, it’s shown at 5.15pm every weekday on BBC One and is hosted by Alexander Armstrong of comedy double-act Armstrong & Miller, and Richard Osman of comedy double-act Armstrong & Osman. We shall investigate how we can use maths to analyse the show, improve our chances of winning it, and ultimately perhaps improve the show itself.

The aim of the game is in each round to give the most obscure correct answer to a given question. Each question ($Q$) has a large set of valid answers $A_Q$, questions perhaps asking contestants to name “Films starring Bruce Willis” or “Countries without an O in their name”. All the questions have been asked to 100 members of the public prior to the quiz (call this set $P$), and they each have 100 seconds to name as many examples as they can (giving rise to a set $A_p\subseteq A_Q$ for each $p\in P$. The contestant gets a point for every one of the 100 people who named their answer $a$:

\[ \mbox{score}(a) = \begin{cases}
| \{p\in P : a\in A_p \} | & \mbox{if}\ a\in A_Q \\
100 & \mbox{if}\ a\not\in A_Q.
\end{cases} \]

So an obvious answer like Die Hard or France will score a lot of points, and an obscure answer like Striking Distance or Central African Republic will score fewer points. Points are bad (hence the title) so it’s better to dredge up an obscure answer than stick with something safe. However an incorrect answer like Avatar or Mexico scores the maximum 100 points. At the end of the round the contestant with the most points is eliminated.

Here’s How Little I See Your Point

You may have seen an article linked to last week, written by Jordan Weissmann at The Atlantic. The article was titled ‘Here’s How Little Math Americans Actually Use At Work‘, although mysteriously this journalist makes use of some mathematical analysis of survey data, and not only that, the data appears to show that 94% of Americans claim to use mathematics as part of their daily job.

The article discusses people’s misconceptions about the future utility of what they were learning, as well as the divide between using ‘any math’ and ‘advanced math’, which includes calculus, algebra and statistics. The number of Americans who admitted to using this type of maths appears to drop off once you get to anything more complicated than fractions, and also presented is an analysis of this divide by job type.

A very well-written and thoughtful response to this has already been posted at mathematics professor Bret Benesh’s blog, which gives four reasons why the article annoyed him (and probably several other people too).

Seeking election-themed graph blunders

Since we’d like to write a funny post about it, if you’ve been sent any literature for the upcoming local elections in the UK (or indeed, from the past or from other elections around the world) which contains a graph or chart of questionable rigor, we want to know about it.

As an example, Colin Beveridge sent us this classic from his doormat:



We’ll be awarding bonus points for inaccurate pie charts, exaggerated/meaningless bar sizes, the complete absence of axis label or scale, the use of ‘Can’t win here!’ and any other sneaky/incompetent features. Email your submissions to, and watch out for a roundup post if we collect a sizeable pile.

Happy Birthday Euler!

google doodle screengrab

Today is Euler’s $-306 \times e^{i \pi}$th birthday, and Google have chosen to celebrate (despite ignoring several other prominent mathematical birthdays, including Erdős’s centenary – see the @MathsHistory twitter feed for a full list) by creating a Google doodle on their homepage.

For anyone who isn’t aware, this is when Google changes the image above the search box on the homepage at, so it still says ‘Google’ but using an appropriate image, which sometimes has built-in interactive elements. I thought it was worth pointing out some of the fantastic maths they’ve included in today’s doodle.

Follow Friday, 29/03/13

It’s Friday again! And with a seamless unbroken chain of Follow Friday posts stretching backward through time with no discernible gap, here’s another post with some recommendations of people to follow on Twitter if you’re into maths.

f(Erdős) = 100

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Paul Erdős, or as most people would call it, Erdős’ 100th birthday. So, Happy Birthday Paul. And if you’ve never heard of him, let’s see what people at his birthday party are saying about the Man Who Loved Only Numbers. Please note: all birthday parties are strictly fictional.

Probably the greatest mathematician of the twentieth century, Paul Erdős … was so eccentric that he made Einstein look normal. He was 11 before he ever tied his shoes, 21 before he ever buttered toast, and died without ever boiling an egg. Erdős lived on the road, traveling from conference to conference, owning nothing but math notebooks and a suitcase or two. His life consisted of math, nothing else.

– Clifford Goldstein, in The Mules That Angels Ride (2005), p. 125