Math Games That Make You Think

Screenshot from Nicky Case’s interactive game about networks.

In the echo chamber, social media kinda world that we’re living in, network theory is playing an increasingly important role. So I was delighted, this morning, to spend several minutes playing an interactive game by the talented Nicky Case called The Wisdom an/or Madness of Crowds. The game takes you through the steps of building a graph, connecting edges, and watching how ideas, contagions, and influences spread through networks. It’s particularly surprising how easy it is to build a network that creates the majority illusion. That’s the one where you’re connected to just the right number of people with just the right kind of beliefs that you think everyone around you thinks the same thing.

This is just another fine example of a Case curated experience that teaches, entertains, and inspires. Case keeps a blog with some behind the scenes narratives, explanations of the explorables and also some short stories. I really fell in love with the post A Way-Too-Philosophical Behind-The-Scenes Post, which gave voice to every feeling of futility I’ve ever had. In it Case riffs on several graphs of “stuff I’ve made,” plotting number of people reached vs value, wondering where the sweet spot lies. Case strips down this analysis with one nice “valuable-ness” curve.

As an academic mathematician this is a balance that makes me think, and often bums me out a lot. I spend so much time working on research papers refining arguments dealing with the emotional upheaval of the referee process and then the subsequent concern that no single human eyes will ever pass over the finished product. Compared to this blog post, which I wrote in <2 hours and at least one person (you!) is reading right now. Granted it’s not likely having any huge impact on your life. But if I have n people reading this post and learning something marginally cool from it, and m people reading my Corollary 2, what ratio of m/n am I really comfortable with? Certainly less than 1 is fine, less that 100 is ok to, but less than 1000? It’s a weird calculus to try and sort out. And then wondering…what’s it all for?

Truth, that’s what it’s all for. Well, truth and tenure. But mostly truth.

A bunch of happy polygons looking for a place to call home.

I first became acquainted with Nicky Case’s work when I encountered Parable of the Polygons. This interactive post, co-created by Vi Hart, is based on a paper by the Nobel Prize winning game theorist Thomas Schelling. By dragging around little polygons you learn how a small amount of racism can easily result in hugely segregated neighborhoods. It’s a great interactive for young brains because it gives such a concrete demonstration of a pretty fundamental concept in game theory and social science. Also it’s just fun to play.

If you want to hear Case talk about this project, check out the episode of The Other Half on Racism and Segregation (forgive the blatant logrolling, but I just think Case has a lot of interesting things to say!)

You can support Nicky Case and this incredibly fun work through their Patreon page and following Case on Twitter at @ncasenmare. And if I find anything you might like on the internet this week, I’ll tweet at at you @extremefriday.

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