Monday, February 27, 2012

On the Rudest Awakening

I recently watched a TED talk by Scott Rickard, who deliberately set out to compose the ugliest piece of music possible. Using the properties of prime numbers, he was able to write music with absolutely no pattern or repetition. At the end of the talk, the piece was played on the piano. It is strange to listen to, because even the worst written and most horribly played piece of music still evokes some sort of reaction in your brain, even if it is a negative one. Rickard's piece evokes absolutely nothing. My brain did not even recognise it as music.

The following morning, I woke up to the loud raucous "Haaa... Haa! Haaaaaa... ... Haaaa" of a group of Hadedas on my neighbour's roof, and I realised that, without a doubt, if one were really looking to play the world's ugliest piece of music, one would not play it on a piano, but a group of Hadedas. Each cry has seemingly random timing, random length, random pitch, and most of the time, does not even fit into the chromatic scale we usually use for music.

Hadedas are truly unbeatable when it comes to unpleasant music.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

On the Birthday Shift

I don't like birthdays. It's not that I've ever had a bad birthday (in fact, they've all been really great so far). It's just that I find the whole concept desperately stupid. But that is not the subject of this post.

Without giving it much thought, people celebrate their birthdays on the same calender date every year, without bothering to account for the fact that leap years are a day longer than other years. This leads to a inconsistency where a person who dies at exactly the same age as another (born in a different year) may actually have lived a day or two longer.

I don't like this, so I propose (for those who do insist on celebrating birthdays) the Birthday Shift, which allows the calender date of the birthday to move around in order to account for the fluctuation caused by leap years. This is not dissimilar to the moving dates and times of the solstices and equinoxes.

For those unfamiliar with the way our calender works, I will briefly explain it. Our calender year is not, as commonly stated, related to the length of time it takes the earth to go around the sun. Our calender year is roughly based on what is called the tropical year, which is the average length of time between any two consecutive solstices or equinoxes. This is on average about 365 days, 5 hours and 49 or so minutes, but it varies in length by a couple of minutes from year to year, depending on which solstice or equinox is measured.

We use what is known as a Gregorian calender year, which attempts to follow the tropical year by using a 365 day year, except in leap years. Leap years occur every fourth year, but not at the turn of the century unless the year is also a multiple of 400. This gives years with an average length of 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds - less than half a minute off from the mean tropical year.

(On a side note: The length of time it takes our planet to complete one orbit starting and ending at it's furthest point from the sun is called an anomalistic year, and is about 25 minutes longer than one Gregorian calender year. The time it takes for the Earth to do one complete orbit relative to a more or less fixed reference frame (such as distant stars) is called a sidereal year, and is 20 minutes longer than one Gregorian calender year.)

What I'm getting at is that the 365 and 366 day years that we use are just an approximation to a 365.2425 day year that our calenders are designed to follow over long periods of time.

I was born in the evening. On the same calender date two years later, my parents celebrated me turning two years old. Although I did indeed turn 730 days old that day, I actually turned 2 years (730.485 days) old the following morning.

I propose that a person's birthday be redefined as the calender day on which that person's age passes an integer value. This will at least enable a person to correctly report their age in years on their birthday. It will result in the date shifting a little from year to year, but with the aid of modern computers, it is not at all difficult to calculate. One simply finds the number of leap days between your birth and the year of interest from

where and are the year in which you were born and the year before the current year if you were born in January or February, or the year after you were born and the current year if you were born in March or later, and the function is given by

The total shift, in hours is then simply given by

I created a spreadsheet that calculates the deviation of the proposed corrected birthday from the traditional birthday in hours, for any combination of year and birth year between 1600 CE and 2400 CE. The shift runs on a 400 year cycle, and exceeds 24 hours for everyone, although occasionally not in a human life time. If you happened to be born in the 101st year of a cycle (i.e. 1701 or 2101), you would have to live to the age of 367 to see it happen. However, if you were born in the years 1696, 1697, 1698, 1796, 1797, 1798, 1896, 1897 or 1898, the shift would have exceeded 24 hours by your fifth birthday. I'd guess that the earliest any of my readers (i.e. people born between 1960 and 2000) could expect a shift would be at the age of 37 for those born in the year preceding a leap year. These people will also be subjected to a 36 hour shift in the year of their 101st birthday.

Should advances in medicine manage to keep people born in the years 1903, 1907, 1911 alive to the age of 185 (which I seriously doubt), they will experience shifts of over 50 hours. Those born in 1903 will have such a shift in 2088, 2092 and 2096.

Consider a more typical case of a person who happened to be born, for arguments sake, at noon on the 5th of February 1983. The actual day on which they are born makes absolutely no difference, provided it is before the end of February. The graph below shows the gradual shifting of the birthday from year to year.

The shift is quite significant, and if the person in question were to live to the age of 120, they should celebrate only 22.5% of their birthdays on the 5th, 74.2% on the 4th, and 3.3% on the 3rd.

Interestingly enough, the graph follows roughly the same pattern as the time of the summer solstice (which is not surprising, since they are driven by the same underlying mechanics).

I wonder if astrologers actually bother to account for the difference between date from year to year. In fact, astrology should use the sidereal year (since it's the one that's fixed relative to the stars) rather than a Gregorian calender year. The resulting shift is magnified by an average of 46% over the first 80 years of a person's life in the sidereal calender, and it loses its periodicity. The cut off points for a certain zodiac sign would have to move about by a couple of days from year to year.

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Monday, February 13, 2012

On Banks - The Absolute Stupidity of it All.

Because, the way they are currently run in South Africa, they just don't make sense. I have never understood just what it is that banks are trying to achieve. Well, the taking your money part is obvious, but why do they have to be so confusing and inconsistent about it.

I have a student account. The nice thing about this account is that, provided I budget carefully and plan each transaction, I can get away with paying absolutely no bank charges. Unfortunately, I am rapidly approaching that magic age where they decide that I must be employed by now, so they shove on a rather heavy "account management fee". Naturally, being the stingy person I am, I immediately looked for cheaper options.

I am not afraid of research, and (as my regular readers will be aware) I am not afraid of doing all of the calculations in order to see exactly which account is the best. Because I've been carefully budgeting and managing my transactions for the last six years, I know exactly how many transactions I usually have, and I know exactly what my balance will do throughout the next year. Because of my investment account where I keep my savings, I am constrained to a particular bank, but this does not matter. I have looked at all of the major banks in South Africa, and all of them suffer from the same problems.

These problems are pretty easy to identify. They are
  1. "Packaged Solutions" are a really dumb idea.
  2. Inconsistent pricing models only make sense the other way round.
  3. It really is cheaper to put your money under your mattress.
  4. The things that screwed up the world's economy? They're still there.
I will explain what I mean by each of these.

    1. "Packaged Solutions" are a really dumb idea.

Doing the calculations I immediately identified three accounts that would be ideal for me, and two more that would be ideal if I were prepared to slightly alter my financial habits. Why was there not only one? In fact, the first three accounts were practically identical in everything but name.

Banks have far too many types of accounts, which would be far better off merged into a single account with options regarding details like overdraft facilities and the like. Banks try this, but you land up with ten accounts that can do the same thing for different prices. These so called "packaged solutions" are not a good idea. Banks really should take a leaf from the book of computer hardware and learn some modular design. It is far easier to have independent modules so that a consultant can piece together to perfectly suit the customer's needs.

With one account, with just one pricing structure, the next problem would automatically go away.

    2. Inconsistent pricing models only make sense the other way round.

The ideal account for my needs would be a current account with a cheque card. A current account is pretty cheap, actually. In fact, there are accounts which can have absolutely no bank charges if you keep a minimum balance for the entire month. That sort of account is perfect for me, and so I automatically homed in on those accounts. The catch is that they all require a minimum monthly income from full time employment. Being a full time student, I naturally am not employed full time. While I do get plenty of money from a grant, and do part-time work at the university which comes to far, far more than the bank's required minimum income, the bank will only open the account if I am employed full time.

Instead, they insist that I open one of their so-called "savings" accounts. These accounts are incredibly expensive (at least when compared to the current account), but they do not require full time employment.

The pricing between the current accounts and various savings accounts are quite inconsistent, often for no apparent reason than that it was different people drawing up each account. While inconsistent pricing models are quite common, they usually work the other way round. Take cars, for example. The options on a more expensive cars cost more, naturally. Adding a sun roof or extra cup holders in an expensive car tends to cost more than adding them in a cheaper, less exclusive model of car. Tax is another example of where inconsistent charges work well. You get the rich to pay more, and give the poor a break.

Banks do it back to front, at least for the accounts in the low to mid income ranges. The current account targeting those who are fully employed are cheaper (free, if you're smart) than those savings accounts that are targeted at very low income earners and the unemployed. Charge the poor so that you can give the (slightly) richer a break.

This whole pricing issue brings me to the next problem.

    3. It really is cheaper to put your money under your mattress.

This is true, despite what your bank will tell you. Of course, it is far, far safer to keep your money in the bank. Sure, your money can earn interest if you keep it in a savings account, but the charges are far more. Lets compare the current account I discussed earlier (where keeping a minimum balance will allow you to bank for free) with a typical savings account. The typical savings account will earn interest of a fraction of a percent. If you have that minimum balance in a current account (and provided that your monthly income approximately equals your monthly expenditure), your balance stays roughly constant. If you have the same balance on a savings account, then the interest you earn will be typically a tenth of your monthly bank charges. That's right. A tenth. And after just a couple of years, you will have lost a tenth of your money. In fact, if you account for inflation, your money will only be worth 80% of what you originally invested (compared to about 90% if you had just put the money under your mattress).

Speaking of inflation that's the next problem.

    4. The things that screwed up the world's economy? They're still there.

No one would disagree that the primary reasons for the global economic crash of three or so years ago was caused by people spending money they don't have. These are hard times. The economy is struggling. Growth is struggling, inflation is up, and what is the country's solution? Well, in order to encourage economic recovery, they want to encourage spending. How do they do that? They make it cheaper to borrow money. What was it that caused the whole crash again? Oh yes.

It just doesn't make sense, when the average life expectancy is shooting up faster than ever before, to discourage saving. The interest rates keep dropping, and saving prospects keep going down. I know this isn't the bank's fault (it's entirely the fault of government), but it is still a problem that affects the banks.

I think I've made my point, and hopefully it's clear enough. It's just unfortunate that all of my ideas would be very expensive to implement. It would be nice if someone high up in one of the banks read this and decided to implement some major changes to the way bank accounts work, but I really don't see that happening.

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Monday, February 6, 2012

On the Magic of the Unknown

It amazes me how so many people still think that technology is magic. Yes, there are robots that (sort of) walk and (sort of) talk like humans. Yes, you can talk to another person on the other side of the world in almost real-time, travel across the world in a day. Not only have people been in space, we have already filled it up with several thousand devices and systems (little more than chunks of metal, really) that we use in our daily life. It is incredible what we have achieved.

I was reminded of all of this when my family was discussing something (I forgot what) at dinner one evening, and my father innocently said "Well, you can just do an internet and find out?" Although my first thoughts admittedly involved TomSka's asdfmovie4, I suddenly realised that my father actually has no idea how the internet works.

Arthur C. Clarke famously said "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I don't like this saying, mainly because I've seen so many people just accept it. That's just a way of admitting defeat, and saying "I'm never going to understand that". I am incapable of dropping everything like that. I have to understand everything, even if it is only on some superficial level. It is a compulsive urge. It is what drives me to live. I cannot just accept that I don't know something. Everyone is capable of understanding everything. I firmly believe that this is true. It just takes someone to have the first spark, work out one tiny fraction of reality, and write it all down. After some time, their ideas will spread (ever faster now that we have so much sufficiently advanced technology), and more and more people will begin to understand that tiny bit of reality. Viable alternatives for understanding in each field will arise and the ideas will naturally evolve until one is sufficiently complete and has enough support (from reality itself, not in terms of a fan-base), letting the others fall back to be archived. It is a slow process, no doubt, but it is the only one that can possibly work.

I often look at my dog, who gives the TV barely more than a passing glance, and I wonder what he thinks. He knows that it's not real. I can tell that he understands that they are just projected images. They don't even smell real. He obviously doesn't understand the physics behind it all (or at least, he chooses not to show it), and quite frankly, neither do I. But I do have a vague idea of how the light reflects off of actors and onto a set of photosensitive capacitors, which will hold a minute electric charge if the right amount of light strikes them just right. I understand the basics of how these can be transmitted and stored in various series of copper conductors and silicon semiconductors, and how a series of pre-programmed pulses from a computer system can systematically call each of these charges in order and pass them through an inductor which emits pulses of electromagnetic radiation out into the air several billion times a second, which are in turn picked up by a giant dish floating in space that is drifting at just the right angle to catch them, perform some elementary calculations and then pulse them back down to Earth, where they are reflected through a small coil of copper wire by a small dish on my roof, which emits small electric signals which, after some processing, are passed through tiny cells of liquid, which momentarily crystallise in the presence of an electric field. The light in the room then reflects off the crystals, making it appear as if there is an image on the screen. Complicated, but not magic.

I believe that my dog understands this. I just wish that humans would get over it. The world is even more wonderful when you start to see how things work. And when you harness that understanding, and combine it with your knowledge to create something new, nothing can ever beat that combined feeling of wonder and achievement.

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