Monthly Archives: July 2012

Willy Wonka’s golden tickets: certainly the most profitable marketing campaign of all times


There’s something that has troubled me since childhood. In Charlie and the chocolate factory, one of the lucky children (Veruca Salt) gets her golden ticket thanks to her father repruposing his peanut shelling factory in a chocolate-bar-unwrapping factory.

Now, there are only five golden tickets, and chocolate bars in the book seem quite popular. How many bars would one need to buy (and unwrap) just to have a seizable chance of finding one of the tickets? Most likely a lot. After doing the maths, I would estimate the number of chocolate bars that Mr. Salt had to buy to something between 12 and 40 million chocolate bars; which means this promotional campaign was most certainly one of the most profitable in history. Details below.

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How random is pseudo-random? Testing pseudo-random number generators and measuring randomness

After introducing true and pseudo-random number generators, and presenting the methods used to measure randomness, this article details a number of common statistical tests used to evaluate the quality of random number generators.

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Using abstract classes to simulate tagged unions (aka sum types)

Most functional languages offer support for tagged unions (also called sum types), a type of data structure capable of successively holding values of several fixed types. This article shows how to use abstract classes to emulate such behaviour in high-level object-oriented languages such as C#, Java, or VB.Net.

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A safer way to implement boolean flags

Introduction

Boolean flags are commonly used to disable a block of code while another is running: for example,

  private bool in_use;
  
  private void Process() {
    in_use = true;
    (...)
    in_use = false;
  }
  
  private void OnEvent() {
    if (in_use)
      return;
      
    (...)
  }
  Private InUse As Boolean;
  
  Private Sub Process()
    InUse = True
    (...)
    InUse = False
  End Sub
  
  Private Sub Process()
    If InUse Then Return
    
    (...)
  End Sub

This design has a major drawback : in_use blocks cannot be nested, since nesting two such blocks will turn in_use to false too early. In the following excerpt, the (...) section in the Process function will not run correctly, because in_use will have been set to false when it runs.

  private void Process() {
    in_use = true;
    Action1();
    Action2();
    (...) // in_use == false here (!)
    in_use = false;
  }

  private void Action1() {
    in_use = true;
    (...)
    in_use = false;
  }

  private void Action2() {
    in_use = true;
    (...)
    in_use = false;
  }
  Private Sub Process()
    InUse = True
    Action1()
    Action2()
    (...) ' InUse = False here (!)
    InUse = False
  End Sub

  Private Sub Action1()
    InUse = True
    (...)
    InUse = False
  End Sub

  Private Sub Action2()
    InUse = True
    (...)
    InUse = False
  End Sub

Such errors are difficult to spot in large applications, and often lead to hard-to-track bugs.

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Unscrambling shuffled text

A story which surfaced a few years ago, and met quite some success in the press and on the internet, pretended Cambridge University had been conducing research on some of the most amazing faculties of the human brain. According to a supposed study, the order in which letters were laid out when writing a word mattered very little, provided the first and last letter be kept in place : this conclusion was supported by a short excerpt of shuffled text, which anyone could easily decipher. As a short example, consider the following sentence:

Narlmloy, radneig tihs shdulon’t be too hrad.

As many commentators pointed out at the time, the trick works well because the words used are relatively short; the following passage should be much harder to understand:

The eofrft rureieqd to sfssllcceuuy dhiepecr sbecmrald pgsaases daiaarclltmy ianserecs as wdors get lehegtinr.

This article presents an efficient algorithm to unshuffle scrambled text.

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