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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.

Dara O Briain: School of Hard Sums to return; maths students sought to take part

A tweet purporting to be1 from the press office of UKTV, the company that owns the channel Dave, has confirmed that the TV show Dara O Briain: School of Hard Sums is to return for a second series (we at least thought we knew this in July). It also says that production company Wild Rover are looking for maths students to take part. The tweet asks you to email to express an interest. You might remember that the first series, which aired in April-June, did very well compared with other programmes on the channel.

  1. Yes, I know, but it was retweeted by Thomas Woolley, who should know. []


Prof David Spiegelhalter always rolls spider-eyes

On the 18th of October BBC Four is going to broadcast a programme called Tails You Win: The Science of Chance, presented by Prof David Spiegelhalter, as part of its Big Science series.

Here’s the BBC’s description:

Smart and witty, jam-packed with augmented-reality graphics and fascinating history, this film, presented by Professor David Spiegelhalter, tries to pin down what chance is and how it works in the real world. For once this really is ‘risky’ television1.

The film follows in the footsteps of The Joy of Stats, which won the prestigious Grierson Award for Best Science/Natural History programme of 2011. Now the same blend of wit and wisdom, animation, graphics and gleeful nerdery is applied to the joys of chance and the mysteries of probability, the vital branch of mathematics that gives us a handle on what might happen in the future. Professor Spiegelhalter is ideally suited to that task, being Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, as well as being a recent Winter Wipeout contestant on BBC TV.

  1. I’m going to guess this sentence is what clinched the commission – CP []

2nd series of School of Hard Sums

Fans of scandalous gossip (and TV channel Dave’s recent foray into maths based light entertainment, Dara O Briain’s School of Hard Sums) will be interested to note the following tweet from Marcus Du Sautoy:

This presumably refers to the show mentioned above, which featured Marcus as a maths question/task-master, providing both fiendish puzzles and mathematical insight – but who knows? People say all kinds of things on Twitter.

Would you be interested to see another series? Which puzzles would you include? Comments below.

School of Hard Sums doubles the normal Dave audience

Last night saw the debut of Dave’s ‘School of Hard Sums’, a slightly strange but enjoyable maths show from Dara O Briain and Marcus du Sautoy. Was the show a success? Today Dara tweeted:

Of course, the show received a good deal of advertising – but it seems like good news nonetheless.

‘School Of Hard Sums’ maths gameshow

School Of Hard Sums, the Dara O Briain-fronted maths game show from Dave (based on the Emmy-award nominated Japanese comedy-panel format Comaneci University Mathematics) starts an 8 episode run 16th April at 8pm on Dave. A page at the British Comedy Guide says:

Showing how maths underpins everything in the world around us, each programme sees two main problems for Dara to crack using numbers and equations, while a second comedian attempts a solution with more physical methods. To discover how many different people to date before choosing a partner, Dara uses the Optimal Stopping Theory; trying to predict a football score, Bayesian statistics come to Dara’s rescue.

Source: Dara O Briain: School Of Hard Sums.