The Iron Bar

October 6, 2015

Three physicists recently published an article showing that an inert iron bar is capable of making decisions. They attach the bar between two slot machines, repeatedly play one of the machines, pull the bar toward the machine when it winds and push the bar away from the machine when it loses. After enough plays, the iron bar can decide whether to play one machine or the other in hopes of a better payoff. Then they say “The most important implication that we wish to claim is that the proposed scheme will provide a new perspective for understanding the information-processing principles of certain lower forms of life.” The physicists also claim the iron bar can determine the probabilities of winning on both slot machines even though it only plays one. I’m not sure I understand the article, though I will happily agree that an inert iron bar has more intelligence than the spammers that regularly bedevil my blog.

The iron bar recalls an old-time method for calculating the median of a stream; for instance, consider finding the median of a list of a thousand occurrences of the numbers 1 to 100. Initialize the median to the first number in the list. Then, at each subsequent number, increase the median by 1 if the number is higher than the current median and decrease the median by 1 if the number is lower than the current median. At the end of the list, the approximate median calculated in this way ought not to significantly differ from the actual median. This is essentially the same calculation as that of the iron bar.

Your task is to write a program that calculates approximate medians in the manner of an iron bar. When you are finished, you are welcome to read or run a suggested solution, or to post your own solution or discuss the exercise in the comments below.

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