Probability

How Many Different Meals Are Possible?

(An archive question of the week) While gathering combinatorics questions, there were several that stood out. This one will serve well to summarize the topic, showing multiple methods for counting, and contrasting other kinds of problems. The problem The question, from 2007, relates to an Arby’s promotion: How Many Different Dinners Can Be Ordered? I …

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Stars and Bars: Counting Ways to Distribute Items

We have been looking at ways to count possibilities (combinatorics), including a couple ways to model a problem using blanks to fill in. Today, we’ll consider a special model called Stars and Bars, which can be particularly useful in certain problems, and yields a couple useful formulas. (I only remember the method, not the formulas.) …

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Permutations and Combinations: Undercounts and Overcounts

(A new question of the week) We have been looking at some combinatorics questions, both easy and challenging. Some questions have come to us in recent weeks that can illustrate how to think your way through relatively difficult problems, including catching errors and interpreting a textbook’s solutions. We’ll see yet again that there are usually …

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Six Distinguishable People in Four Distinguishable Rooms

(An archive question of the week) Last time we looked at some elementary problems in combinatorics, where we counted the number of ways to choose or arrange elements of a set. Let’s look at a somewhat more complicated problem, which will demonstrate issues that come up in interpreting such a problem and in choosing a …

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Permutations and Combinations: An Introduction

We have seen a number of questions recently about combinatorics: the study of methods for counting possibilities. These topics are studied at all levels of mathematical education, from elementary (where they might just be called counting) to high school (where they are often learned along with probability) to college (where they are part of “discrete …

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Conditional Probability and Multiple Choice

(A new question of the week) A recent question about probability has ties to Venn diagrams, tables, and Bayes’ Theorem. Questions about answering multiple-choice questions are common; this one offers a twist that provided opportunity to discuss several important concepts. Here is the initial question, from August: On a multiple choice question, only one answer is …

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Rolling a 6 on Three Dice

(An archive question of the week) One of the discussions we looked at last time involved rolling three dice and getting at least one six. I didn’t go into detail on the calculation there; but I found another place where we discussed it at length. We’ll look at that here. A wrong way and a …

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The Gambler’s Fallacy

Probability seems simple enough to many people that it can fool them into wrong conclusions. We have had many questions that involve the “Gambler’s Fallacy”, both from people who naively assume it without thinking, and from some who defend it using technical ideas like the Law of Large Numbers. The Gambler’s Fallacy Here is a …

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Should Rare Events Surprise Us?

(Archive Question of the Week) We often receive questions saying something like, “My wife has the same birthday as my son-in-law, whose dog has the same name as my wife’s brother, … ,” and asking us to calculate how likely it is that this would happen. Sometimes it is simply impossible to answer (without, say, looking up …

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