I rediscovered this nice paper by Kenneth P. Bogart in my Interesting Esoterica collection, and decided to read through it. It turned out that, while the solution presented is very neat, there’s quite a bit of hard work to do to along the way. I’m not particularly experienced with combinatorics, so the little facts that the paper skips over took me quite a while to verify.
Once I was happy with the proof, I decided to record a video explaining how it works. Here it is:
I probably made mistakes. If you spot one, please write a polite correction in the comments.
Since 2010, I’ve been maintaining a list of “interesting esoterica” – papers, books, essays and poems that I find interesting entirely on their own merits. It’s mainly bits of esoteric maths – hence the name – but I’ve also included quite a few things just because they have amusing titles. The main idea is that when I’m talking to someone and want to show them a cool thing that I’ve half-remembered, I can look up the exact reference: I’ve shared the paper “Orange peels and Fresnel integrals” more times than I can count (probably the same as the number of times I’ve eaten an orange).
It quite quickly went viral, or as relatively viral as a maths game can get, with people tweeting their high scores and posting the link to reddit and Hacker News. I realised fairly soon that I should put in some stats tracking, to see if there were any interesting patterns in the data (and also to inflate my ego as the “games played” counter went up). I missed the first big spike in traffic, but on the 9th of March I wrote a script which saved a record of each game to a database.
The mad rush settled down quite quickly but there were still occasional spikes as different sites or people with lots of twitter followers found the game. Now, after two months, I’ve got data for just under 350,000 games. That’s a decent amount of information!
Warning: you could make a very strong argument I’ve thought far too much about something inconsequential. If that makes your stomach turn, look away now.
This morning in the shower, I had an idle thought about my towel. It was, as always, folded neatly on the toilet seat. A problem that’s been bugging me for a few days is how to pick up the towel by a section of the long edge, so when it unfolds it’s the right way round.
* quiet in the back
The problem is that the short edge and the long edge look the same, and once I’ve folded the towel over a couple of times and had a shower only a madman* would remember which is which. But my towel isn’t square, so it occurred to me that either the longer or the shorter edge, after folding, could be the edge I want. Since I never make a diagonal fold, the long edge is only ever folded on top of the long edge, and likewise for the short edge. I fold the towel until it fits comfortably on top of the toilet seat, and by the time I’ve finished my shower I can’t be relied upon to remember which sequence of folds I did.
Which got me thinking about the ratio between the width and height of my towel: if I know this ratio then, by looking at the towel and counting the number of folds, I can work out which folds I’ve done, and hence which of the sides will unfold to be the long edge.