Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On Murphy's Law...


... which simply states (with some manipulation) that if one were to come up with an important law about engineering design and treat it only with complete seriousness, then that law will be eternally misquoted and misapplied in a light-hearted manner.

It is truly ironic that the aerospace engineer, Edward Aloysius Murphy, Jr., who came up with a serious law of defensive engineering design - stating that when designing something, one should always assume that the design will have to endure the worst possible scenario that could possibly occur - will always be cursed whenever an unconsidered worst case scenario occurs.

Whenever some plan goes wrong, and someone screams "Damn you, Murphy!", I can't help but wonder, if old Murphy is up there watching, mumbling "Told you so..."
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Monday, March 28, 2011

On Not Matching Things


No doubt you have been in a sleepy mood one day and mistyped your email password, only to be told that your "username and password do not match". This happened to me the other day. Unfortunately, I was always taught that you should choose a password that was not the same as your user name. It's more secure that way. For that reason, I have never used Alphanumeric Sheep Pig in any of my passwords.

At first I thought that it might be some new security policy - make the password the same as your email so that it would be unique... Very smart... However, I couldn't access my email in order to change my password to match my username. Frustrated, I realised that this new policy would mean that anyone with your email address would know your password, but I was not prepared to assume that some programmer I have never met would have realised the same thing. As a result, I was beginning to write an angry letter (since I couldn't get into my email) to state exactly what I thought of the idea.

Halfway through the letter, I decided to try logging in again, and this time my password worked. Looking back, I think that perhaps it was trying to tell me that I had entered either the username or password incorrectly, but if that was the case, then surely it would have just said so?
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Thursday, March 24, 2011

On Puzzling Things


Here is a puzzle for you. I have no idea who made it, or where it came from, and I admit that I could not solve it (the fifth level stumped me completely) but hopefully someone else will be able to solve it. Anyway, it did keep me busy for an entire morning.

Because it's quite a large for a picture (and because most of it gets stripped away by free image hosts), I did not put the whole thing up - just the first image. You can download the actual puzzle itself here.




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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On Sports


I have never really understood the appeal of sports. I guess it’s mainly that I have never managed to grasp people’s desperation for a certain team to win purely due to an arbitrary geographical connection, in spite of whatever odds may be for or against that team, and the pointless arguing and the contention that it inevitably initiates, especially amongst those whose role in the sport is limited to providing moral support. I understand the appeal of being directly involved in a sport - the physical exercise, the sense of achievement (not just of winning, but of scoring points, or of coming close to winning), and the compulsive desire not to lose contribute to the release of endorphins which result in some degree of enjoyment for the players. For the fans, I think it's just a case of choosing to sponge of that enjoyment.

I find it difficult to muster support for a team which I have no real connection with apart from coincidence of geographical location. And once you take away the excitement and suspense that your mind generates if you imagine some form of bond between a team's success and your own happiness, most sports are actually rather boring.

(On a side note: The key to a happy and successful life is to create a similar imaginary bond with something more relevant - say, to the fact that you are alive. It is just as real and as easy as supporting a sport team, with the added benefit that if your team loses, it doesn't matter any more.)

The one sport I do watch though is cricket. Not so much because of the actual game play, because essentially, it's only one person throwing a ball at some sticks, a person attempting to hit that ball with a plank of wood, a third person attempting to catch the ball, and then throwing it back at the sticks. There are a very limited number of significant permutations that can result, and once you've seen the ball bowled a couple thousand times (regardless of the format of the game), you'll have seen almost all there is to the game.

What does make cricket interesting is the shear number of variables that are involved and collected in the game. In international matches played by full members of the International Cricket Council, the approximate trajectory of every single ball bowled is tracked and recorded (up to 600 of them in limited overs cricket, and often a couple thousand in test cricket). In terms of runs alone, the variables are endless. While results are usually decided on a runs per team per match basis, one could also work out a vast number of other relevant statistics, such as runs per batsman, runs per partnership, runs per bowler, runs per batsman per wicket, runs per bowler per wicket, runs per ball, runs per over, runs per innings, runs per opponent, runs per ground...

The endless list of numbers available means that it is easy to use statistics to calculate expected values (I use this term with its correct statistical definition here, not loosely) for certain teams based on their previous performance. For example, it is a simple matter to calculate that the South African team that played Bangladesh last Saturday (Amla, Smith, Kallis, Duminy, du Plessis, van Wyk, Botha, Peterson, Parnell, Tsotsobe, Tahir) has an expected score (excluding extras) after 50 overs of 244/5 (based on past batting perfomance). In order to account for the fact that they are playing Bangladesh (considered to be a weaker side), the expected value of the score can be recalculated to be 248/4 by considering only the average increase in runs for each player against Bangladesh in the past (but not a faster scoring rate). Of course, depending on how each player actually plays, the score can go up considerably - usually at the cost of wickets. The actual score of 284/8 is a perfect example of this. Similar adjustment can be made based on grounds, weather, pitch conditions, recent streaks of good or bad performance by various players, and other parameters. It is possible to calculate an expected value for the number of extras in a similar manner, and it is also possible to calculate another expected value for the score based on bowling averages alone.

Anyway, there's no real point to this post, but the lure of numbers attracts me as always...

(Note: Batting averages were calculated from data at Howsat.com - the cricket statisticians and were correct up to 22 March 2011.)

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On Amusing Hat Day for Incompetence Awareness


Every year, well over 6 billion people are affected by either their own or someone else's incompetence. It is a serious problem but it can be helped, if only more people would make the effort. For this reason, I propose a day for raising incompetence awareness on the 26th of August 2011. There is a Facebook event here.

Think of the last time you were affected by incompetence: a waiter forgetting to bring your drinks at a restaurant; a cashier at a supermarket giving you the wrong change; being given someone else's order at a fast food outlet; being stuck in traffic for hours because some truck driver took a corner too fast and rolled his truck; not being paid your salary because of some admin error; buying a poorly designed vacuum cleaner that has plastic parts where there should have been metal; or even just buying the wrong cable for your TV because the sales person had the wrong information. It is a major problem, and yet, perhaps, unnecessary.

For this reason, I propose that there be a day on which every one of you wears something on their heads that would not normally be considered a hat. If anyone asks why, then tell them that it is to raise awareness for incompetence.

Of course, raising awareness is useless unless something is actually done about the issue. Although I fear that we will be stuck with incompetence forever, I have thought for a long time on how to at least reduce it. The answer is to improve education. It's not that people aren't smart, it's just that they choose not to think. So, if you feel like it (it is completely optional), on the 26th of August, donate a book or two to the library of your local school. Or, you could donate some money to an orphanage or children's home (many of which don't get government subsidies) so that those children can get a better education and grow up to be competent individuals.

If we all work at this, we can make the world a better place.
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Thursday, March 10, 2011

On Artificially Fabricated Atmospheric Cnidaria


Of the order Aeromedusae. Blobs that drift around the sky, much like clouds, but more alive, and with somewhat less purpose; usually slow and patient, with no motivation, and no need for it either. But in spite of all of the perceived laziness, they spend their entire lives moving. Not even of their own free will, but directed by the sovereign commands of atmospheric currents.

They have no centralised nervous or digestive systems, but do have some form of primitive respiratory system that is used more for locomotion than for breathing, although it can generate a soft but coarse, rustling roar that is semi-effective at deterring would-be predators.

As opposed to mesoglea contained by a double layer of epithelial cells, they are filled with a surprisingly argon rich gas partially contained by a thick layer of randomly arranged polycarbonate chains.

Once the sessile stage of their life ends, they roam freely, but serve very little purpose except to migrate, especially across roads. The classic cliché should not be "Why did the chicken cross the road?", but rather "Why did the plastic bag cross the road?"

(On a side note: I learned today that jellyfish have no brain and operate entirely off of impulses in response to nerve inputs. They have absolutely no intelligence, yet still tend to form swarms of tens of thousands of individuals. It is very tempting to draw conclusions regarding the intelligence of humans who tend to swarm together in huge groups...)
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Monday, March 7, 2011

On Highly Brittle Materials


Regardless of whether they have a crystalline or non-crystalline molecular structure, they are typically rather smooth, especially when wet, making them rather easy to drop. They are also typically relatively heavy.

Of course, brittle materials that can easily withstand a drop from a height of, say, the average table height or the height of the average human hand would be perfectly acceptable materials for making, say, drinking vessels. However, a mixture of 75% silica with sodium oxide and lime additives, formed above it's glass transition temperature, and then cooled to form a highly brittle solid at room temperature, is not the first material that I would choose for making drinkware. However, I must admit that standard soda lime glass does appear considerably higher on my list than something even more brittle, a lot more expensive, and that has statistical evidence linking it to lead poisoning, such as, say, for example, the lead crystal glass that wine "experts" claim is essential for anyone who is more than just a casual wine drinker. (The wine "breathes" better when you swirl it, apparently, and the refractive index improves the colour of the wine... Apparently.)

Almost as bad as the poor choice in material is the container shape. I am not really sure that a tall thin glass has any greater aesthetic index than a short fat one, but it is obvious that it is a less practical shape. I do think that aesthetics are important, but if they interfere with the function of a design, then a compromise must be found, and function needs to take priority over looks. The most impractical shape, of course, is the typical wine glass shape, which has a very high centre of gravity and a long thin stem. The reason for this (apparently) is that you can then pick up the glass by the stem and not affect the temperature of the wine. A far more practical way of doing this would be to drink the wine from a mug.

A sensible design for a drinking vessel (or "glass", which is a word I am going to stick to for the sake of convenience) is not very difficult to come up with. A good design should be difficult to knock over, should not break when it falls, should be easy to hold and should not become slippery when wet.

To start with, a good material to use would be polypropylene, coated with a microscopic ceramic layer on the inside to prevent the leaking of oleamide and harmful biocides that may occur after extended reuse. A low centre of gravity would improve the glass's stability, and this can be achieved by intelligent shaping of the glass. A truncated cone is a good shape for this, with a base that is broad compared to the glass's height. In order to solve the grip, a sensible thing to do would would be to roughen the outside of the glass - a frosted pattern would also aid the glass's aesthetics. A rim would also help prevent the glass from slipping out of one's hand, and could be located some distance from the top of the glass so that the drinking lip is not affected. A very simple example of such a vessel (containing Creme Soda, of course) is shown below.


A wine variant that allows for the glass to be lifted without one's hand raising the temperature of the wine can be made by simply including a handle - which means that an ideal vessel for drinking wine is essentially a beer stein.
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