From NYT: Good at approximation? Maybe you are the next math superstar!


41 Responses to “From NYT: Good at approximation? Maybe you are the next math superstar!”

  1. shamael says:

    If an average “adult” gets it right 75% of the times while I’ve made no mistakes at all in 30 tests, I wonder how bad my brain is going to become in the next 15 years… :(

  2. LogrusZed says:

    This is kind of what Right-Wingers do when trying to explain societal changes they disagree with:

    “Why are people getting divorced? Must be gay people.”

    “Why does about half of society disagree with our policy and actions? They hate America, and are probably gay.”

    “Who is getting our kids hooked on drugs? Mexicans. No, we used Mexicans last year, go with Muslims, gay Muslims.”

  3. Cathoo says:

    I have trouble when it’s different by 1 dot, or if the dots become a mass of dots. Good article, and a really fun game!

    (If I read this correctly, this means that Mister Jalopy owes us all a kebab, right?)

  4. doug117 says:

    Meals at $33/day/person?
    You could easily stretch that to $33/2weeks/person
    or longer and they’d still eat well, maybe even better. But not at restaurants.

    The interest alone on $85B would probably provide meals for everyone in SF Valley forever. Anybody wanna do the estimates?

  5. Purly says:

    Cathoo, the key to the mass of dots of both colors in the same area is to blur your vision so the size of the dots is not as recognizable. Since you will be looking at the background not the foreground, the colors can float in two directions and sort themselves out behind your sight.

    At least that’s the way I’m doing it.

  6. dougrogers says:

    Yeah, but if you bought lunch for everybody they wouldn’t have to work. Where would America be then?

  7. TEKNA2007 says:

    AIG’s bail-out loan from the Fed is estimated at $85 billion.

    If AIG is going to get a bail-out — because it’s so “inextricably woven into the global financial system” — how about we hit up some other governments beside the U.S. to help pay for it?

    Can’t say I’m really keen on seeing Americans working to pay for the massive transfer of wealth into the hands of criminal mortgage brokers and their shareholders and partners throughout the aforementioned global financial system.

  8. lightsyrup says:

    I had trouble when the numbers of yellow and blue dots were nearly equal as well – 90% over 30 games.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Different sizes can fool me. I would have thought I would test higher – doing this repeatedly I ended up in the high 80s. But given my overall math skills I would have expected more, probably close to 100%. Maybe it’s because I’m drunk.

    But no question, quick estimation skills are a good test – the ability to assess reality in purely numeric terms.

  10. greensteam says:

    We had to do this in Engineering design 101 when i was at Uni and it is a great game but also essential skill for any engineer or scientist. You need to know if your carefully calculated computed complicated formula answer is vaguely in the right order of magnitude, as 38 says.

    The project we had to work on was to think of a machine to transplant a fullygrown oak tree. So how heavy, tall is the tree, what about the rootball and earth etc. How long does the crane jib need to be, what safe working load etc etc. Good practice.

    More recently when teaching Renewable Energy to a class of final year honours civil engineering students, I had them do something similar to figure out how much steel and concrete you would need to replace all the UK’s electricity production with wind turbines. They hated that because they were not used to assignments that did not have a precisely “right” answer. But real life is more like this than it is like an exam paper.

    My kids (not at all techy) and I sometimes do this game on long journeys and set each other loopy things to approximate, such as how long is a “piece of string”.

  11. Purly says:

    Well after 100 attempts, I went down to only 86% from 88%. Still, that’s fairly accurate since most of my math scores have been in the B to A- range.

  12. travelina says:

    Abbas Raza at 3QuarksDaily just posted about this yesterday, estimating how much the air in the Empire State Building weighs, among other pointless conundrums:
    If you guessed 2,000 Toyota Corollas, you’d be right!

  13. dougrogers says:

    88% but that would have been higher if I hadn’t been second guessing my intuitive first call on about four of the screens. My match scores were never better than 65% if i worked very hard.

  14. DaveX says:

    While stocking water jugs at Wal-Mart, I used to try estimating how many Otter Pops (or milk gallons, etc) were produced in a year, and how much they weighed. In fact, I do this all the time. However, I’m ridiculously terrible at math.

  15. Itsumishi says:

    90% of the time over 30 attempts. What I did find strange though was that about 80% of my incorrect guesses were in the first 40% of my attempts.

    With this reasoning I could assume that that I would either get better at the game as time goes on, or at the very least level out and after approximately 100 attempts (which I won’t do while I’m at work) I would expect an average of perhaps 95%.

  16. Itsumishi says:

    And another quick 10 attempts has supported my theory. 92% correct, no incorrect guess in those 10 attempts.

    Better close this window. Addictive.

  17. cubecul says:

    90% over 30 attempts. Very addictive.

    It took way too long for me to adjust to the game. Often I would click yellow 4 times in a row because I was so sure that yellow appeared more even when I had that gut feeling that blue looked a bit more concentrated.

  18. palindromic says:

    I only got 80% in that stupid game, but I guessed that were 150 piano tuners in chicago. WHAT??

  19. Anonymous says:

    If you’re an American taxpayer, for only one dollar a day (rounding up a bit), you too, will bail out the country’s largest insurance company! Isn’t that much better than saving a starving child in a third world country? Maybe we should be requesting that the US government send us a monthly story and picture of a disadvantaged CEO being helped by this program.

  20. Alarming Female says:

    90% over 50 attempts; yet I’m a liberal arts major.

    Take that, XKCD!

  21. semiotix says:

    Great article, thanks for bringing it to my attention. Based on the test, I estimate the probability of me becoming the next math superstar at about 140%. And with math chops like that, you know that’s a dead-on estimate.

  22. jonathan_v says:

    so what you’re saying is that we could pretty much make sure that , at least for a few months, no one in america would go to sleep hungry….

  23. technogeek says:

    Granted, this is a biased audience. “Half of all adults are above average”, and using the web/interested in learning random facts (ie, BoingBoing reader) is a self-selection filter. So I’m not surprised we’re scoring above the NYT stated average.

    On the other hand, I wouldn’t put it past the NYT to deliberately state a slightly low number, so their readers score above it, feel good about themselves, feel good about the NYT, and buy into the brand a bit more. That’s a classic bit of marketing psychology.

  24. Chrs says:

    Estimation is a good time, but I would be more inclined to believe self-selection in this. They know they “have to” practice these skills? No, this is the kind of thing that you do for a laugh, if you’re quick at using rough calculations to estimate something. If you’re excited enough about raw math to become a mathematician or physicist, you probably enjoy throwing numbers around.

    In other news, AIG has solid assets to back the loan up with, and is still profitable. I’m not happy that the bailout had to happen, but it could have been a hell of a lot worse.

  25. dainel says:

    #25 Technogeek, no kidding. Did anyone even get less than 75%?

  26. Keeper of the Lantern says:

    Most equations that pop out of physical theory are actually unsolvable. The world is nonlinear. So even the equations themselves or approximations and then most of the time you have to look for an approximate solution.

    I’ve been teaching my 10-year-old to do approximations prior to division: Just a ballpark so he can see whether his solution doesn’t have a major flaw. The same is done in physics, and for most things if your equations bring you in the ballpark then you know you are not super far off in terms of your assumptions.

  27. Beanolini says:

    #25, Technogeek:

    Half of all adults are above average

    No, half of all adults are above median. I guess you’re not the next statistics superstar.

  28. monstrinho_do_biscoito says:

    whu hoo. 100% sucess rate on 15 tests.

  29. Anonymous says:

    40 tests, 95% correct. BTW, I’m an accountant.

  30. dalesd says:

    We did Fermi questions in physics class in HS for our Physics Olympics. Questions like: how many gas stations are there in the Unuted States? Or, If you accelerated at g/2, how many seconds would it take to reach 0.1c? Answers had to be correct to the nearest power of 10.

    BTW, I got 100% through 25 tests.

  31. owza says:

    >(Registration required)

    So ~5% of BoingBoing readers will RTFA.

  32. racer x says:

    Ok, I’m going to get vague here, but this reminds me of a book I heard about where the authors found that the average of a crowd estimate is usually pretty spot on. Say you have a contest where you guess the weight of a bull or how many gumballs are in a jar – if you ask everyone (or most everyone) and then take the average of the guesses – it’s a winning answer. It sounds like this study taken to the level of the individual. Judging from the response in the comments, it seems to be a pretty fair conclusion.

    On a non-related note, I used to amuse myself by asking random people the answer to points of contention brought up by conversations with my friends – like what’s the capital of Nebraska, say, or who played the crazy bitch in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle – it’s amazing what people don’t know they know when put on the spot.

  33. asuffield says:

    TL;DR, however this chunk of the quote:

    “What this suggests to me,” she added, “is that the people whom we think of as being the most involved in the symbolic part of math intuitively know that they have to practice those other, nonsymbolic, approximating skills.”

    is nonsense. Mathematicians and physicists do this because it’s fun, period. They aren’t practising anything.

    I don’t know whether this sort of thing has any real relevance to actual math or physics research, but I tend to doubt it, since this is not science. It is well established that any basic numerical skills are a fairly good predictor of ability at doing real math and physics work, and that’s probably all there is to see here.

  34. CJ says:

    I’m at 85% over 40 tests.

    But what I’d be really interested in seeing is whether there’s a systematic colour bias – do I overestimate the yellow, and underestimate the blue? (I suspect I often do, because the yellow’s just so much more vivid)

  35. jeshii says:

    San Fernando Valley?! Am I gonna see Mister Jalopy at the market? XD

  36. Purly says:

    I got 88% of the time. The key is to hold your breath, don’t blink, and look at the negative space not at any one particular dot.

  37. trr says:

    So how many gas stations are there in the US? I’d guess one station for every 5000 people based on the fact that there are three stations in my town of 16,000, then one per 500 to one per 50,000 should be OK, so ~300million/5000 = 60,000 gas stations. But that seems too low, so I’d revise to one station per 2000 people and get 150,000.

    I was at 88% after 40 games.

  38. Church says:

    You’ve never used a slide rule, have you?

  39. benj says:

    Hm, 1 tril each for the wars and for the financial fuxx0redness, that’s 6 grand per capita. I used to live in Ithaca, NY, population 100,000. $600M could pay for the most excellent boondoggle project of a 3 mile subway running from Cornell, through downtown, to the forest of big box stores on Meadow Rd. On certain assumptions the wars will cost an additional 3 grand per capita, which could be used to pay for an extension up to the Pyramid Mall in Lansing, or to run a pair of commuter spurs into Cayuga Heights and West Hill!

  40. jimkirk says:

    A professor I had would regularly pose such questions as “how many ping pong balls would it take to fill this auditorium?” or “how much does an average house weigh?”

    I regularly do a quick approximation when I hear things like figures touted on the news about schemes to power toll booths by harvesting the power of cars driving over spring loaded road sections or just about any statistic.

  41. MisterEd says:

    Four kebabs, four lamb chops, and two Egg McMuffins a day. After the heart attacks, your beloved SFV may not have 1.8 million people. It sure sounds like a great meal to have once a week or so, though (the kebabs & chops, not the EggMacs).

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