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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Deja Vu: Revisiting The Flash Mind Reader



About 9 months ago, in a tweet, math teacher Fawn Nguyen casually mentioned "The Flash Mind Reader," a delightful Web-based puzzle, that I was unfamiliar with, though she apparently has known of it for close to a dozen years. Go here to check it out, if perchance you've not seen it:
http://www.cs.nyu.edu/~dodis/magic-ball.swf

What a great game/puzzle for younguns, but it also stumped me for awhile before I figured it out, and wrote a post alluding to it. So I was delighted to be reading "The Best Writing On Mathematics 2014" recently and come upon this great teaser once again (pgs. 171-5). It comes up in a selection aptly entitled "Wondering About Wonder In Mathematics" by Dov and Rina Zazkis.  It's one of my favorites of many great selections in this year's anthology. The authors pinpoint "surprise" as the underlying component of "wonder" in mathematics, and then list four types of "mathematical surprise":

1) perceived "magic"
2) counterintuitive results
3) variation on a known result or procedure
4) paradoxes

"The Flash Mind Reader" falls under the 'perceived magic' category, and they write this about it:
"We have used this activity [the Mind Reader] several times with both elementary school and university students. It's not uncommon for members of both groups to try to cover the webcams on their computers or face away from the screen, as if the Mind Reader was determining what number was in their head using some elaborate eye-tracking mechanism. Obviously, these actions do not prevent the Mind Reader from working.  However, these reactions serve both to illustrate some rudimentary theory testing -- 'Is this website tapping into the webcam?' -- and to demonstrate students' need to understand how this 'Mind Reader' works, which is catalyzed by their curiosity."
I'm heartened to know that university students can be as duped by this little gem as I was at first blush ;-) Of course a lot of number and card tricks are based on pure mathematics; in some ways, Flash Mind Reader takes the element of 'distraction,' which is often a component of such "magic," to another subtle level, which helps make it so effective. [In the event you don't see how the puzzle works, you'll have to buy the book, or google for the answer, I won't give it away here!]
The rest of the chapter looks at some other classic and interesting examples from mathematics, placing them in the four categories above. The Mandelbrot set, Platonic solids, the Monty Hall problem, and Simpson's paradox, are among standards mentioned in the chapter.

Anyway, I encourage folks to get a hold of this year's "Best Writing On Mathematics," as I think it the best edition yet (and unfortunately most expensive) of a series that I hope maintains interest and support. It was recently reviewed by Alexander Bogomolny:  http://tinyurl.com/p28acrz
[I included it on my recent list of books for the Holidays at MathTango.]


On a sidenote, thinking there might be some interesting back-story here, I attempted to find information about web designer Andy Naughton, who created The Flash Mind Reader, to include in this post, and was surprised that though his name and the game are found MANY times in Google searches, I couldn't actually find any background info on him... is he alive??? is he very private? Is Naughton his real name (both "Andy Naughton" and "Andy Wolfe" seem to be associated with "FlashLight Creative" -- are they 2 different people or one-and-the-same?) Is there some mystery to all this? Does anyone happen to know much about the fellow?  Just curious what the history to the Mind Reader might be, and how, if at all, its success affected Andy's life??? (...if I could locate him, and he was willing, I might be interested in doing one of my Math-Frolic interviews with him, as well). ...maybe if I just hone my own mind-reading skills I can find him.

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