March 2009
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Math is not idiotic

Math – or, if you prefer, maths – is not idiotic, despite what Barry Greenstein might say.

I’m referring to an incident on last week’s episode of High Stakes Poker.  In a nutshell: Greenstein sucked out on Tom Dwan’s pocket aces in a hand he played horribly, then made a meal of spitting out his supposed new catchphrase: "Math is idiotic".

A couple of years ago, posters on the 2+2 poker forums pledged money to Greenstein’s charity if he’d say "lol donkaments" on TV.  He did it – and made over fifty grand for Children Incorporated.

For an encore, he decided to go again this year.  But this time, instead of a ubiquitous internet poker phrase he plumped for something more obscure, which his son came up with.  It’s a phrase that hardly anybody outside of the Greenstein family’s own poker site seems to have heard of, is not funny and doesn’t even make sense.

Nothing against his charity work, it’s a fine cause, but seriously – that’s the best he could do?

Here we have one of the best and most respected players in the game saying not to worry about whether you’re in a good spot or have sufficient pot-odds to draw to your hand, just go with it if you have a feeling.

I know the luck vs skill debate will run and run, but there can’t be many viewers of High Stakes Poker who would actually think they are watching a programme that showcases the world’s best guessers pitting their gut feelings against each other for hundreds of thousands of dollars?

The way this hand played out has rather spoiled High Stakes Poker for me.  I find it very difficult to believe that Barry would gamble $240,000 in such a poor spot (actually a 3-1 underdog after the flop, which is about as good as he could hope for) just in case a miracle happened so he would get to crowbar in his new catchphrase in order to try to raise a few pennies for the kids.

His EV on this hand is roughly -$200,000.  The charity would make, hopefully – and if the economy wasn’t shot to buggery – another $50,000.

The subsequent clip (which, notably, wasn’t necessary two years ago to explain "lol donkaments") with Greenstein talking about his charity and his lucky feather and how we know math is idiotic while Dwan can’t keep a straight face just makes me more sceptical that there must have been some funky off-camera shenanigans and the whole thing is just a set-up the magic of television.

Anyway, as if I needed to prove it, here is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen that maths is indeed anything but idiotic.  This is taken from a book that Claire bought yesterday, under the guise of being something she can use in class.

The book is "A Passion for Mathematics" by Clifford A. Pickover, and its main selling point was that the author appears to have been on acid when he wrote it.  Questions include "how many digits of pi can you display using a deck of cards?" and "could Jesus multiply two numbers"?

The protagonists in his problems are often rabbits, robots or aliens.  Or robotic alien rabbits.  He writes very colourfully, setting them in scenarios that have little or nothing to do with – frankly – anything at all, and frequently embellishing with oblique conjecture and unnecessary levels of irrelevant detail.

This one, despite being relatively down-to-earth, was my favourite:

You work for a computer company.  Suppose that about 2 percent of the people in your company have AIDS.  A nurse named Julia tests all of the people in your company for AIDS, using a test with the following characteristics.

The test is 98 percent accurate, which we define as follows.  If the individual has AIDS, the test will be positive 98 percent of the time, and if the person doesn’t have AIDS, the test will be negative 98 percent of the time.

You are tested, and, sadly, the test turns out positive.  You lose your health insurance.  Would you conclude from this that you are highly likely to have AIDS?

The significance of the nurse’s name, the type of company you work for or the response of the insurer?  Who cares?

It’s almost certainly the most outrageously tasteless probability exercise ever to grace an actual maths book, yet it still has a grounding in (an albeit grim) reality and shows how mathematics can be applied even in a horrifying life-changing situation.

The answer (look away now if you want to work this one out yourself):






It’s a coinflip.  Precisely 50-50 whether you have it or you don’t, given the criteria in the question.

You can read the explanation in full here:  It’s answer 5.30 on page 365 of the book (page 381 of the document).

Anything but idiotic, I hope you’ll agree.