Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Some uses for mathematics

Mathematics is a tool we use every day. But I often hear my 12-year old son say, "What's the use of learning this stuff?" He can be talking about any of the subjects he is learning but often he is talking about math. So, I'm going to try to write two short articles about uses for mathematics that you may not have thought about.

The first has to do with the recent elections in the country of Iran. That country had elections for the post of President. The current President is a very vocal anti-Western leader who is pushing for Iran to develop nuclear capabilities. He says it is for developing the ability to make nuclear power plants but other countries are worried about Iran's developing nuclear weapons. So, while we wouldn't normally be interested in an election in a foreign country, this one has consequences for our country and the rest of the world.

After the election, in which the current President won with a large majority, there were cries of fraud from the the opposition parties. You could just chalk this up to losers saying they were cheated but this interesting story in The Washington Post, titled, "The Devil is in the Digits", shows how, using mathematical principles and little bit of psychology, you can make a pretty good case that the election was not fair.

Using statistics, you can figure out that the numbers of votes and the distribution of the votes was probably manufactured. Usually, the last two digits of the large number of votes is a random number but in this case, they weren't. It can be proven mathematically that those numbers are pretty far away from being random. Well, if they aren't random, where did they come from? Either there was some bias to the numbers or someone made them up. That's where psychology is involved.

Psychology is the study of the human mind and why we do and don't do certain things. In this case it helps us understand that it is hard for people to make up numbers that are truly random. And by studying the numbers from the Iranian election, you can see that there is a real basis for the requests of the opposition parties for an investigation into the election.

Unfortunately, the Iranian government is really run by a small number of Muslim clerics and they have no intention of overturning the election or even of truly investigating it. They have done a rather lax investigation but it won't turn up anything because they don't want it to turn up anything. That is why it is important to rely on the unbiased numbers you get from a scientific investigation. Whether the election was truly fraudulent or not, there is a real reason for investigating. But if you ignore the math, it's just a matter of opinion. And those in power have the final opinion!

Next time I'll write about the mathematics involved in a game show that even confused mathematicians!

Friday, June 26, 2009

A funny story that almost happened

One of my college roommates had come to visit me in Pittsburgh and we were on the streetcar on our way home from a long day. I looked around at all the tired, bored people and had an idea. I turned to my friend and said, "I'll give you twenty dollars if you walk to the front of the car and lead everyone in a round of 'Home on the Range'." I don't know what made me do it and I don't know where the idea came from (this was long before the Seinfeld "Chinese Restaurant" episode where Jerry offers Elaine $50 to go to a table of strangers and take an egg roll).

We looked at each other for a minute and he actually looked like he was considering it. I started sweating wondering what I'd do if he took me up on it: Should I join in singing or just sit as low as possible and be embarrassed? In the end, he didn't do it but we both laughed about it. Every time I think about it, I laugh to myself. Just as I'm doing now.

[The picture is from Wikipedia Commons at this page.]

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

We had to delay our vacation

I shouldn't be at work today. I should be with my family on our way to vacation. But this year, for only the second time, we had to postpone our vacation.

Every year, we head north to Jefferson, NH to visit Santa's Village. But this year, it is raining so much that we decided to postpone the trip. It's not too bad. We'll go in a couple of weeks but it might be a little more crowded. But it's better than having to wear raincoats all day and worry that we'll get wet on the rides.

We were all looking forward to it and it's a disappointment that we're not on our way there. I love the smell and the sounds as we enter the park. Everyone is so nice there and it's such a relaxed atmosphere. But it's one more thing to look forward to. The only other time we had to postpone our trip was when were already on our way.

We were pulling into a gas station and I had a really hard time stopping at the pump. I checked the brake fluid and it was empty! I couldn't believe I'd let it get that bad. There was a small store there that carried brake fluid. But after I poured it in and tested the brakes a couple of times, the fluid level dropped right away. We had a little braking but not enough to continue on our vacation. So, we looked for a full-service garage in nearby towns and finally found one that said they'd look at it. When they finally took a look, after hours and hours of waiting, they said they'd have to order parts. We couldn't wait any longer so we had to limp home. Some of the brake lines were completely shot. I thought they were made of non-rusting material but something had ruined them and we couldn't use the car except to get home. I don't ever want to drive that far with the car loaded with people I love and worrying about every mile we traveled. I'll take a delayed vacation any day.

Monday, June 22, 2009

"Of course I'm sure!"

The title does not reflect the way I think. But, apparently, people prefer to get advice from someone who is sure of them self. I saw an interesting article at the New Scientist website titled, "Humans prefer cockiness to expertise". It says that we will even forgive the confident person some errors if they remain confident. This saddens me for two reasons. One is that it is scary that leaders of our country and the people who run our companies are like this, too. They are not making decisions based on whether the advice they get comes from someone who has proven themselves in the past. They are listening to the blow-hard who is sure of himself. No wonder we get into wars we shouldn't and our economy is on the rocks. No wonder we make bad decisions about whether it is better to feed the hungry or make a new model of car that uses even more gasoline.

The other reason this saddens me is that I do not give my advice confidently. At least most of the time. I almost always couch my opinions in layers of options and other possibilities. Internally, I'm sure of my opinions but I don't want people to just believe what I say just because I said it. I want to offer them evidence that should be weighed against other evidence they may receive. And this is the reason that my advice is so often ignored! I could say that the world is wrong and I am right and that people should be accepting advice from trusted sources and looking at the track record of these confident people instead of blindly accepting their advice. But I'm not going to change the world. The trouble is, I'm going to have a hard time adjusting to this. Giving advice is too important to me to change the way I act just to get people to take my advice more often. The thought that someone might take my advice and be hurt by it inhibits me from just saying everything more boldly. I am not always right and neither are the confident people. But many of them don't care. To them, it more important to win the fight. It is more important for them to have their views accepted.

Last week I didn't have a chance to write down some stories about my father like I hoped I would. But here is a little bit about him as it relates to this topic. He told me once that he was surprised by how often people accepted his ideas and advice. I recognize now why that was the case. He was very confident. He was sure of himself. He wasn't a blow-hard and he wasn't after power but when he said something, you just believed him. In my father's case, though, he didn't necessarily want people to just believe him with no other opinions being considered. He looked at it like I do (of course, I get this trait from him) - that you need to get a variety of opinions and then make the decision. You don't just accept something someone says because they're confident. Another trait I got from him was that we tend to distrust the advice of people who see too confident. In my father's case, it was an unconscious ability to sound confident. Even if he wasn't!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Don't have a heart attack until you're sure you should

I was showing a coworker how I burn disks with our software on it. We were about to release a new version of our program and the guy who used to do it had been fired a couple of months ago. I used to do that job and knew what program to use. We'd had problems in the past when we used the free software that comes with most new computers to burn disks because the free software wouldn't "close the session" when we were finished. We would send the disk to the company that did the mass production and they would come back with, "The session isn't closed on this disk. We can close it but that will change the way the files look when you examine it. You should close the session before you give it to us." Whatever "closing the session" means!

When I was given the responsibility of burning the disks, I looked around for a better program and found ImgBurn. It is free, too, but it works better and, apparently, "closes the session" when it is done. When someone else was given the responsibility of burning disks, I showed him what I used and it continued to work well. But then he was fired and new disks needed to be prepared. No one else knew what to do so I volunteered to do it. In the spirit of teaching a man to fish, I was showing how it is done, which program to use and explaining the background of the problem.

I took the stack of blank disks, picked the top one and put it in the disk burner all while continuing with my explanation. After a while, we noticed a funny noise. It was coming from the disk burner. It sounded horrible. It was making a scraping, swishing sound. I hurried to remove the disk. It took a while because the computer was apparently trying to make sense of what was going on. When I finally got the tray open and took out the disk, it was scrubbed completely clear! I almost had a heart attack. What had happened to my disk burner?

Lucky for me, I focused on the problem and didn't give my heart a chance to succumb to the stress. As I looked around and examined the stack of disks, I realized what had happened. There is a clear plastic spacer (or protector) on the top and bottom of the stack of disks. While I was busy talking, I'd taken the plastic piece (which is the exact size of the real disks) and put it in the burner. The disk is pretty flexible and must have flopped around when the burner spun the disk up to high speed. I was able to burn nine disks successfully so I don't think I ruined the disk burner. We'll see.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

"This is the story..."

When my son, Evan, was about three years old, he started to really love stories. He liked the stories we read to him and he liked the stories we told him (especially funny stories of things that happened to us). But he especially loved to tell stories. He still does but it all started with a six word story that he wrote. He would tell it to us over and over. He would always preface it with, "This is the story..." and then came the story: "And all the animals went home."

It always brings a smile to my face when I think about it. Partly because it helps me remember what Evan was like at that age but also for the story itself. My wife Cindy likes that it has a happy ending. I like the word "And" that begins the story.

You always hear about stories that leave you wanting more; stories that make you wonder what happens next. Evan's story leaves me wondering what happened before all the animals left to go home. Why had they all gathered together? Or were they brought together against their will and managed to earn their freedom? Had they been heroic or helpful? Were they friends before they gathered and did they remain friends after they left?

I remember hearing about Ernest Hemingway saying he could write a complete story in six words and then doing it: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." That is a fascinating story (but my wife wouldn't like it because of the sad ending). And I understand there have been contests and challenges to others to make these kinds of short, short stories, Many of the ones I've read have been really good and I've thought of submitting Evan's story but never did. There is even a website dedicated to the tiny stories at Six Word Stories. Some of those are wonderful. But I like Evan's best.

My wife just reminded me of a funny thing Evan would say when anyone asked him the question, "How old are you?" Evan would answer, "Big!"

Friday, June 12, 2009

A sad day for the English language

I saw the headlines a couple of days ago: "Web 2.0 is the One Millionth Word in English". This is sad on many levels. First of all, "Web 2.0" isn't a word; it is a phrase. The phrase was first coined in 1999 by Darcy DiNucci in an article titled, "Fragmented Future." It's one of those things that makes a fine catch phrase for an article but it is misleading. It's not like the World Wide Web has really been changed. What has changed is the way it is used. It is more interactive now but it didn't happen all of a sudden. As programmers started to learn to use Ajax and make Web applications more like desktop applications, using the Web became easier and faster. "Web 2.0" is a description of that change in usage. See this Wikipedia article for more information about the phrase.

One of the better articles I read on this comes from the Guardian website. They point out that this cannot be anything but an estimate and that many other real words could be considered before "Web 2.0". The people who made this ridiculous claim, The Global Language Monitor, say that the "word" (my quotes) crossed from technical jargon into widespread usage over the last six months. Ridiculous. If these guys are such word experts, I would hope they would be trying to build up our language instead of trivializing it.

Friday, June 05, 2009

The lunch that could have been

As I was eating my lunch today, I couldn't help but wonder how much better it could have been. Last night, my wife cooked steak on the outside grill and it was delicious and tender. She asked if I'd mind having the left-overs for lunch on Friday (today). I said, "That would be great."

Then she decided that Charlie the Dog looked like he would like some steak, too. Charlie the Dog always looks like he would like some steak. I argued against it but Cindy felt "sorry" for him and gave him a piece of "my" steak.

Sleep well, Charlie, I'll be feeding you tonight.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The old future is a little closer

I wrote too quickly, it turns out. In a previous post, I made reference to a CNN article about how the current "future" isn't like the future that people in the early parts of the last century wrote about; by the year 2009, people expected things to be more, well, "futuristic". I disagreed with the article and wrote counter arguments but I conceded that the future "now" is different than people of the past had written about or hoped for. I shouldn't have conceded the point.

Today, along comes an article on the Computerworld website about a flying car! And the best part is that when I went to the company's website to see the pictures, like the one here, they are not artist's conceptions. They are pictures of the real thing. Flying. Up in the air. Above some buildings!

The company Terrafugia is estimating that the car will be ready for sale some time next year. So, the year 2010 is looking a lot more like what was imagined back in the last century. But will it have a ray gun?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

How to work

I remember reading a synopsis of a book about how to "make it" in business. One of the quotes went something like, "There will always be a place in a company for a person who can say, 'Don't worry, I'll take care of that'." The underlying idea is that this person would have the confidence in themselves and the understanding of the problem to handle it to their boss' satisfaction without the boss needing to concern himself (or herself) with the task. I've often quoted this to friends and to people who are looking for work. One of these days, I'll look up the title of the book and read the book itself!

Just this week-end, the sermon was about just this idea. The main text the pastor used was Genesis 30:1-6a. Sorry I can't put a link directly to the video of the message. This link gets you to the page for recent messages. Look at the title Home Offices. It's part of a series of messages based on the metaphor of a house. By all means, watch the whole series but I especially like the Home Offices message.

Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh's officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there. The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the LORD blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the LORD was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field. So he left in Joseph's care everything he had; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate. Genesis 39:1-6a [NIV]

I think the quote I started with came from these verses with special emphasis from the part in bold, "...with Joseph in charge, he [Potiphar, Joseph's master] did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate." The main point of the sermon was to realize that we are ultimately working for God and that is how we should look at our work (no matter how menial). It's like God is contracting us out to the company we work for. What we do reflects on God. It can be a good reflection or bad. It's up to us. I try to work this way but I know I can do better.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The future difference from the past

There were two stories on Friday, May 29 from two different places that look like they were written to be two sides of an argument. The first one I read is from the CNN website titled "Why our 'amazing' science fiction future fizzled". The other is from the New York Times website titled "Docking Brings Space Station to Full Staff". This picture of the "city of the future" is from here.

The CNN article, seeming to be about the "fizzling" what we thought were going to be amazing advances in the future, is kind of mixed up. It talks for a while about failed innovations like the jet pack. Weren't we all supposed to have them by now? Well, no, we weren't. Some writers at one time or another used them as a plot device in their story. No one promised that we would all have jet packs or that we would even want them. Especially with the price of gas now! Then the CNN article seems to get a little more hopeful. After all, a lot of the things that were "predicted" (remember, they weren't promised) actually were invented but just aren't practical.

To me the CNN article is just one more swipe at science and technology, "If you guys are so smart, where are all these wonderful things?" Well, I'll tell you where they are - in the minds of people who had to make a living. Nothing is free and no one wanted to pay for the future. Instead, customers craved the softest tissue paper on earth. Customers craved bigger, faster cars that burned as much gas as could be pumped out of the ground. Customers craved fast food and pictures of celebrities in bathing suits. We got what we wanted. People didn't want a fantastic future with everyone working together for the benefit of all. We found it more profitable to make weapons and for politicians to scare us into using them.

The other side of the coin came in the New York Times article. It was shorter and not meant to be provocative. It was just a simple report that a Soyuz spacecraft had arrived at the International Space Station bringing three more crew members to the station. That brings the total crew to six and is the full complement that the station was designed to hold. What, to me, is great is that the six crew members represent five countries. The station is more like the future Star Trek predicted than the one favored by most science fiction stories. The space station crew are working together to build something for the use of all the people of Earth. And to make this happen took a tremendous amount of innovation, invention and manufacturing. The truth is, the "future", that is "now", is even more fantastic than anyone could have predicted. We carry around a small, battery powered device and can talk to almost anyone in the world. We have access to more information (and yes, misinformation) on the Internet than we can imagine. The world actually has the capacity to feed itself and we could probably get together and cure many of the diseases that troubled us in the past. But it all depends on where we place our priorities. Shall we spend more of our money on looking for more oil or looking for alternative energy sources? Shall we spend more money suing each other over a fence too close to a property line or breaking down barriers keeping agricultural innovation our of a poor country? There is only so much money and so many talented people to go around. Our future is based on the decisions we make today.