One for the discrete mathematics wonks:
Consider strings of symbols taken from an alphabet (a set of symbols). A string contains an echo if it contains a substring of the form SS, where S stands for any substring. So the string hello contains an echo (S = l), as does banana (S = an, or S = na). But bandana is contains no echo: although the substring an occurs twice, these occurrences are not contiguous. A string without an echo is echo-free.
So here's the question: Given an alphabet, what is the longest echo-free string of symbols from that alphabet? Is there a echo-free string (or strings) of length n such that all strings with length greater than n do contain an echo?
With an alphabet of only one symbol, a, the longest echo-free string is obviously just a, since aa contains an echo.
For an alphabet of two symbols, a and b, the longest echo-free strings are aba and bab. Extending these strings always introduces an echo (e.g. abaa, abab).
What about an alphabet of three symbols? It turns out that with three symbols, there are echo-free strings which continue without end, and so there is no longest echo-free string. And since such strings exist for alphabets of three symbols, they exist for all larger alphabets.
Here is a definition in Haskell of an echo-free infinite string using three symbols (Haskell being a wonderful language for describing infinite sequences):
-- three magical strings expand 'a' = "abcbabcacbc" expand 'b' = "abcbacabacbc" expand 'c' = "abcbacbcacbabcbacbc" expands = concatMap expand -- an infine echo-free string noecho = (expand 'a') ++ (expands $ drop 1 noecho)
Using ghc to run it:
*Main> take 1000 noecho "abcbabcacbcabcbacabacbcabcbacbcacbabcbacbcabcbacabacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacabacbcab cbacbcacbabcbacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacbcacbabcbacbcabcbacabacbcabcbacbcacbabcbacbcab cbabcacbcabcbacabacbcabcbacbcacbabcbacbcabcbacabacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacbcacbabcbac bcabcbabcacbcabcbacabacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacbcacbabcbacbcabcbacabacbcabcbacbcacbab cbacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacabacbcabcbacbcacbabcbacbcabcbacabacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacbca cbabcbacbcabcbacabacbcabcbacbcacbabcbacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacbcacbabcbacbcabcbacaba cbcabcbabcacbcabcbacabacbcabcbacbcacbabcbacbcabcbacabacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacbcacba bcbacbcabcbacabacbcabcbacbcacbabcbacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacabacbcabcbacbcacbabcbacbc abcbacabacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacbcacbabcbacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacabacbcabcbabcacbcabcb acbcacbabcbacbcabcbacabacbcabcbacbcacbabcbacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacabacbcabcbacbcaca bcbacbcabcbacabacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacabacbcabcbacbcacbabcbacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacbc acbabcbacbcabcbacabacbcabcbacbcacbabcbacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacabacbcabcbacbcacbabcb acbcabcbacabacbcabcbabcacbcabcbacbcacbab"
It's straightforward to write a program to check that some prefix of the string generated by noecho is in fact echo-free. Although, I have not found an algorithm for this with time complexity better than O(n2), making it time-consuming to check more than a few thousand symbols.
Of course, empirically verifying that some finite substring of noecho is echo-free is not the same as proving that noecho in its entirety is echo-free. The three magical strings from the program are carefully chosen to allow such a proof, which I will outline in a future post.
I expect that this result was described long ago in some corner of the mathematics literature. If anyone reading this knows where, please get in touch.