Friday, December 25, 2009

Being a Dissertation on Pirates, Closed-Societal Rank, and the Ideals of Democratic Progression

The other day, I got a call from a friend on a strange-looking logic problem that she had encountered on one of her exams. That this happened to be a corporate exam surprised me; I ran into a variant of this one some years ago, and it struck me as the kind of thing that takes a great leap of logic in order to solve.

I'll paraphrase it below, just for the telling. There are plenty of versions of this puzzle running around, so don't take this one as canon:

Five pirates have gathered on a deserted island to divide their booty: 1,000 gold coins in total. These 5 pirates are ranked by seniority (so there's a #1 pirate, a #2 pirate, and so forth, all the way down to a #5 pirate), and it's the job of the most senior pirate to decide how the loot should be divided among themselves.

There is, however, a catch: Whenever the most senior pirate gives a proposal on how to divide the loot, a vote is taken among all of the pirates. If the majority of the pirates agree with the proposal (or if the vote is tied), the coins are divided as stated. If the majority of the pirates disagree with the proposal, however, the most senior pirate is killed and the next most senior pirate must now come up with a proposal.

As mentioned, there are currently five pirates, and it is now the job of the pirate captain (pirate #1) to decide on how to divide the 1,000 coins. Each of the pirates is completely logical in nature, will never abstain from voting, and would like to keep as many of the coins as possible for him or herself. What division should the pirate captain propose so that he gets as much of the coins as possible, without risk of getting killed in the process?

The obvious concern here is that you can name virtually any division proposal, and the problem will simply throw it right back in your face. The pirate captain can, for example, suggest that the coins be divided equally among all five pirates (i.e. each of them gets 200 coins)... but then, how do you stop the other four pirates from thinking that they could just as easily get 201 coins each?

No, the real puzzle here involves coming up with a convincing argument: the solution involves devising a sound logical structure — sound enough, at least, to get the majority preference among the pirates. That happens to be the key to the problem, mind you — we can assume that each of the pirates is a completely logical, which means that we can presumably predict how they will think.

The worst-case scenario involves all of the first four pirates losing the vote on their respective proposals, in which case it will be Pirate #5's turn to make a proposal. In this case, the situation goes as follows:

Pirate #5: "Since I'm the only pirate remaining, I can simply propose that I get all 1,000 coins. When the vote comes, I'll be the only one voting, which means that I can just vote for myself and let the proposal pass! Whoo-hoo!"

Easy, right? This situation will obviously be the result if it comes down to Pirate #5 making the porposal... and Pirate #4 knows this. So what should Pirate #4's proposal be, assuming that only #4 and #5 are remaining?

Pirate #4: "Only me and Pirate #5 remain, but I just need to tie the vote in order for my proposal to pass. If that's the case, then what's stopping me from proposing that I get all 1,000 gold coins and Pirate #5 gets nothing? Pirate #5 will definitely vote against me, but he can't do anything about the tied vote, and I'll get the coins as proposed."

So the basic fact is that, if the first three pirates are killed and the proposal goes to Pirate #4, when Pirate #4 will certainly get all the coins. Pirate #3 must know this, and must therefore plan accordingly:

Pirate #3: "Pirate #5 knows that if I'm killed, then the proposal passes to Pirate #4, and #5 gets no coins at all. Therefore, I'll propose that Pirate #5 get one coin — because that's more than he'll ever get out of this deal, and he'll have to vote for my proposal — and I get the other 999 coins. Pirate #4 gets nothing at all, but I don't need his vote anyway."

And now, since Pirate #2 knows that he needs to get at least two votes for his proposal — his own vote, plus one of the other pirates' votes... the most economical solution is to offer Pirate #4 an incentive.

Pirate #2: "I'll propose that Pirate #4 get one coin — because he gets nothing at all if Pirate #3 is allowed to make a proposal — and that I get the other 999 coins. Pirate #3 and Pirate #5 will definitely vote against me, but they won't be enough for a majority."

As a result, the pirate captain (Pirate #1) must take all of the above into account. Noting that he only needs three votes — his own vote and at least two other pirates' — for his own proposal to pass, he must offer the minimum needed to two other pirates in order to "buy" their votes. This is this correct, and final answer:

Pirate #1: "If it falls to Pirate #2 to make a proposal, Pirate #3 and Pirate #5 both get nothing at all. So in order to get their votes, I'll offer that Pirate #3 get one coin, and that Pirate #5 gets two coins (so that he's not tempted to wait for Pirate #3's proposal). In the meantime, I get the other 997 coins via majority vote... and Pirate #2 and Pirate #4 both get nothing."

Questions like these are logical models: They assume that all involved entities follow a logical pattern, and then challenge you to follow that logical pattern to a correct resolution. Usually the best approach for each of these is to boil them down to a simpler scenario (usually a snapshot of the same situation in a future iteration) and then work your way back to the original complex scenario.

The earliest (and simplest) example of such a puzzle that I remember goes as follows. I'll use the "pirates" background again, because we might as well go all Jack-Sparrow today:

Three stowaways have been caught on the deck of a pirate ship. Now, normally, they'd be executed, but the pirate captain is feeling a little generous today, and decides to play a little game with them.

The stowaways are shown a total of five shirts: Three of the shirts have a black mark on the back, and two of the shirts have a red mark on the back. Then each of the three is blindfolded, and each made to wear a shirt with a black mark (although they don't know what color mark they're wearing). The two shirts with red marks are then hidden from sight, and the blindfolds removed.

The pirate captain then announces to the three: "Each of you is wearing one of the five shirts we showed you earlier — either a shirt with a black mark, or a shirt with a red mark. Each of you can see what colors the other two are wearing, but not your own. The first one among you who can tell us the color of the mark he is wearing will be freed, while the other two will be executed."

The stowaways are all completely logical, and none of them dares turn his own shirt around for fear of angering the pirates. After a few minutes of silence, however, one of the stowaways announces, "I'm wearing a shirt that has a black mark." How did he know this?

Assuming that the three stowaways are named #1, #2, and #3 — with Stowaway #1 being the lucky man who speaks first — we can boil down #1's thought process as follows:

Stowaway #1: "Let's simplify the situation first: Let's suppose that I'm wearing a red mark.

"If I'm wearing a red mark, then when Stowaway #2 looks at me, he sees that I'm wearing a red mark. And he must be thinking: If I'm wearing a red mark myself, then Stowaway #3 sees two red marks and should therefore immediately conclude that he's wearing a black mark.

"But Stowaway #3 doesn't say anything... and in that case, Stowaway #2 can only conclude that he's not wearing a shirt with a red mark. So Stowaway #2 should have concluded that he's wearing a black mark.

"But Stowaway #2 doesn't say anything, either. And if he doesn't say anything, then that can only mean that my original assumption is wrong. Stowaway #2 doesn't see a red mark on my shirt because I'm not wearing a red mark. I must therefore be wearing a shirt with a black mark."

I've seen quite a few other variants of these situations as well — I've seen grand viziers separated by walls, I've heard of leather-jacket-wearing scientists being locked up in rooms, and I've even read of costume-wearing kids sharing Halloween candy. Each of them happens to be a variant of the puzzles above, or of some unlikely logic-inducing scenario that's closely related to them. The method of solution happens to follow the same pattern, and that involves trying to simplify the situation to a point where the larger problem is solvable.

The strange part lies in the fact that, in order for the object of the puzzle (the "protagonist", if you will) to get out of his or her situation, they'll literally need to think in terms of the other characters' thoughts. It's like having some pseudo-logical encouragement to put yourself in somebody else's shoes.

That said, puzzles like this are actually somewhat rare — when all the variants are compressed into their original versions, you don't have much to go around. I suspect that the more popular logical models belong to a subset of puzzles — the liar- and truthteller-versions — if only because these can go through an infinite number of combinations and get a proportional amount of study.

Finding this puzzle in an exam for a corporate application, though... well, that's just odd. It's not the sort of thing that you can answer in a few sentences, after all. I'm actually more interested to find out if 1) said corporation offers any similar brainteasers in its application process, and 2) said corporation actually expects people to solve these things in one breath.

An even more pressing question, of course, lies in why a company would ask such things of their applicants. Let me see... darkened rooms, strange procedures, and threats of execution... perhaps these things are closer to the corporate scenario than I imagine.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sound Bites

I established both a Twitter and a Facebook account last April, as part of preparations for what's now my current mode of work. "I want you to become an expert at both of these," one of our directors noted, and over the last few months, I've concluded that this was because they were both likely to figure into future initiatives.

Said line of work, however, ended up eating into my writing time for most of the year. When you're juggling multiple projects each day, and generally waiting on a client who can toss you a last-minute business-oriented task at any time... well, you usually don't have that much time left to think of other things. Like, say, metaplots and characterization.

The strange part is that Twitter, Facebook and their ilk have provided adequate replacement within this time. With their character limits and such, I originally thought it difficult to place one's thoughts in a single post... unlike, say, Blogger and/or Multiply, which allow you to write however length you wish. You can't, for example, tell an entire story on Twitter. You can't write an entire treatise on Facebook. You simply don't get enough characters to be able to tell it like it is.

One of the keys, as I've found so far, is injecting a little mystery into the whole affair.

I can't write a classic seven-hundred word blog article into any of these shorter posts... and after a while, I realized what the bother was. A venue that's made for 140 characters is made for 140 characters, after all — it just means that I've had to fundamentally alter my way of thinking in order to adjust. You don't think "how do I fit seven hundred words into 140 characters", but "what thoughts do I have that can be expressed in 140 characters".

In short: Twitter's for those short snatches of conversation. Facebook is for those anecdotes you tell over a glass of wine. Blogger and Multiply are for those all-out, full-blown stories that you wouldn't mind reading in the tabloids. (If you want those massive novel-length treatises, you can still go out and buy a, well, novel... or something.)

That, and I find that you don't necessarily have to say everything. I usually come with the assumption that every person I talk to needs absolutely all the facts with regards to every story. Twitter and Facebook don't just put a cap on that sort of thinking on my side; so far, they've convinced me that not every bit and piece needs telling. The result so far has been a string of subtle posts... perhaps even too subtle in some cases. (I've had to explain quite a few things to some of my contacts, particularly the one about the feminine hygiene wash.)

In fact, my only concern right now is that I seem to sound snarkier than usual when it comes to these things. I'm not exactly a photo or a video person, and I'm only a passable web-gamer at best, so what most people see from me are direct quotes like "Bubu, the god of monitor screens and speakerphone conferences, is amused." I get a lot of raised eyebrows that way.

To be honest, it seems less like adjustment and more like attempted mastery of a different medium. It's an accessible medium, mind you, especially to anyone who's been writing on the Internet for a while now — but it's one of those things that you can't quite put your finger on within the first few days. Think 700 words in 140 characters here.

Over the last few months, my Facebook posts have greatly outnumbered my Blogger and Multiply posts, and that's because it's simply a lot easier to come up with a snarky backhand comment sometime in the middle of the day. That doesn't mean that I'll completely ignore my "proper" blogging yet, but it does mean that I might have to reassess my targets. I can't exactly expect to have time for each and every one of these accounts, of course.

I've got a two-week break coming, and I suppose that I'll try to play some catch-up then. As much as the two services have been quite useful this year, I'm not sure how much sanity I should really invest in reading those feeds all afternoon long. I mean, there are longer stories to write.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Disclaimer: December 2009

I've been following a recent issue as of late, which involves the acquisition of content from a local author and blogger. Roch Chua runs Hearty's Haven as a personal site, and she has been very active regarding events and developments in the technology and social sectors within the last year.

Last week, she reported an upcoming revamp of the Friendster web site, which was promptly picked up and posted in its entirety by a moderator on

Once the news was broken, this resulted in some mild outrage on Facebook. Roch had been following the Friendster change for a while, to the point of being in contact with them and signing a nondisclosure agreement until the news could be broken. When the article emerged, however, two things were certain: First, the entire text had been copied word-for-word from her blog (including the images and their placement); and second, it was this article that was getting all of the hits from the international search engines. The article was cited and attributed to her, but the lost site visits were another matter altogether.

Roch's attempts at communication with resulted in a negative response (if not outrightly insulting) from the moderators and the forum-goers, which filtered into other channels as well. Fortunately, the moderator who originally posted the article elected to remove it; As of this writing, however, said article has already been copied and has appeared in other venues.

On my discussion with Roch, she advised me that the matter is closed. The offending post is gone, the work is lost, and the fallout has already been scattered across local connections. If anything, the experience inspired her to put up better security practices and measures for her posts; Time will tell if they're effective.

I've advocated an anti-plagiaristic stance from the first post of this blog, so saying that this case piques my interest is little more than an understatement.

In the first place, despite the persistence of Roch's proponents, I must point out that this is not a case of plagiarism. Plagiarism is, in informal terms, the act of taking the work of another creator and passing it off as your own original output. It is the scourge of authors, artists, teachers and governing bodies alike, because it implies that anybody can put his name on somebody else's creation and gain the benefits from doing so. The fact that the moderator at fault here distinctly placed the author's name on the copied article notes that there was no motivation for him/her to acquire the work for him/herself.

This is, however, a case of copyright infringement — the act of subverting the right of the author to determine how his work should be reproduced (among others). While the original article was produced with the intent that it be published on the complainant's blog, the same permission did not apply to its appearance on the Sulit forums. I assume that the same situation applies to the question of site visits and search hits. disavows any legal action to be taken against posts on its site, but I must point out that this has not prevented similar lawsuits from taking place (and succeeding in compulsory action). There's a clear party at fault here, mind you — the moderator — but the company can be called to task for the actions of one of their representatives. With that said, the moderator has complied with the required action ("Please remove the post"), and the complainant has already closed the issue.

What I find regrettable about the issue is that there was little netiquette involved, and that both parties seemed to want to force a resolution rather than ask for one. I believe that there's a way to resolve such issues in a decent manner, and it goes both ways.


So what does this mean for this monthly disclaimer of mine? Not much, really — but it's another real-world incident in a long list of items that have to be constantly monitored. Stuff like this needs to have its lessons realized and applied. While I'd like to say that this is the last time it will happen... it won't.

This disclaimer, like all disclaimers, focuses on the plagiaristic aspect. For starters, I am obligated to mention that everything written on this blog is an original work of this site's creator and administrator. Yes, that's right — I performed research, discussion, and hours of keyboard-tapping to write each and every one of these posts. There are exceptions in that I will occasionally quote or reference other sources in these articles; these articles are never quoted in full, mostly because I try to provide links and/or attributions for every one of these.

If you feel that I have used something that was created by a different person, and that I have not provided the correct acknowledgments to that source, please inform me. I like to think that I'm a reasonable person, which means that I'm willing to negotiate over the use of the material.

Similarly, if you would like to use the material on this blog, my base requirement is that you ask me first. That's it, really — you can contact me via email, or simply leave a comment here. I usually don't set forth a lot of conditions other than a link and an attribution of some sort.

Do not take my stuff with the intention of claiming that you wrote it. This includes any situations where you post it without any acknowledgments, and most certainly in areas where it gets used in a harmful, offensive, or out-of-context manner.

In the event that any of these tenets are broken, I will be hospitable in my attempts to contact the parties at fault. I feel that these situations can be resolved in a decent manner in accordance with everyone's wishes, and I will assume that any such parties feel the same way. I will assume legal action as a last recourse (because that should really be the case). That said, in cases of extreme offense, I also reserve any and all rights to beat the aforementioned parties to death and feed their remains to the orangutans at the zoo.

I am registered via a Creative Commons License, and you can view its terms and conditions via the the link on the bottom right sidebar at my main blog site.

Be careful about what you do, everyone, and be careful about what you say. I'll also recommend my footnotes below; they make for good reading after the issue at hand.

Essential material for the post was taken from the following sources:
— Chua, Rochelle S.; The New Friendster is Finally Coming!;
— Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia; Plagiarism;

— Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia; Copyright Infringement;
Intellectual Property Code of the Philippines; Chan Robles Virtual Law Library