Thursday, June 29, 2006

Irregular Nouns

Everybody is familiar with irregular verbs in english -- in fact, if you learn english as a foreign language, probably the first verb you learn is the absurdly irregular To Be, none of whose past or present tense forms remotely resemble the infinitive.

What few people realize is that english also has a lot of irregular nouns. Many things are named differently when they happen to you vs. other people. For example, the noun for surgery varies by person:
- I have a procedure
- You have surgery
- He/she has an operation

Likewise, if you lose your job:
- I was part of a RIF
- You were laid off
- He/she was fired

And when you travel overseas:
- I am a traveler
- You are a visitor
- He/she is a tourist

More later, I think.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Stupid Sports Statistics

Most statistics that you hear on ESPN are stupid because they are so meaninglessly specialized ("Hernandez is only the 6th player in the last 12 years to hit 8 times in his first 5 games". Whatever.) But one that I heard on ESPN a couple of nights ago stuck with me not because it was stupidly complex, but stupidly simple.

The talking heads on Sportscenter were setting up the next game in the NBA finals and trying to make some point about the dramatic significance of game 5. Breathlessly, one of them announced that with the series level at 2-2, "the team that wins game 5 has gone on to win the series 18 times out of 24." Wow, pretty impressive sounding stat, right? That all-important momentum from winning game 5 carries you to victory.

Except that if you think about it for two seconds -- which is about how long it took me -- you realize that there is no game 5 momentum. None whatsoever. Nil. Zilch.

If you assume that both teams go into the last two games with a 50/50 chance of winning each game -- i.e. no "momentum" for the game 5 winner -- 18 series wins out of 24 for the team that wins game 5 is exactly what you'd expect by chance. Consider: the team that is down 2 to 3 needs to win both remaining games. With a 50% chance in each, it has a 25% chance of winning both games and the series, so it should win 6 out of 24. Which is just precisely what has happened historically. Winning game 5, in other words, has conferred no special "momentum", that makes the team that wins it no more likely to win game 6 or 7. Each of the following games is still a toss-up.

In short: the magical "momentum" of winning game 5 is that you lead 3 to 2 and only need one more game to clinch the series. Nothing more, nothing less.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Foods that should cancel out (but don't) and other culinary musings

Why is it that if you drink too much caffeinated coffee, drinking a decaff doesn't cancel some of the caffeine out?

Similarly, I have found that a pound of pasta and a pound of anti-pasto don't mutually annihilate in a burst of energy, as the amateur physicist in me expected.

In the supermarket I noticed sugar-free decaffeinated coke. What does that leave? A can of fizzy caramel-flavored water?

On a related topic, four kinds of food I have learned to avoid are:

-- Anything with the word "food" in its name, like "cheese food product". If they have to tell you its food, there's something seriously worrying there. (Originally I thought that the rule should be "don't eat anything with the word 'product' in its name, but eventually I realized that the Food part is much scarier than the Product part.)

-- Anything with a Best Before date measured in years (unless its alcohol)

-- Anything whose label has to tell you what it isn't, like "not a dairy product"

-- Specialities of the region. When I was younger and more naive, I thought that when these words appeared on a menu in some remote little restaurant it meant you were getting some authentic local speciality that was so good, it was a carefully guarded secret hidden from the wider world. Wrong. It turns out its code for "parts of the animal nobody else would be crazy enough to eat". If you're really lucky it won't actually be recognizable as the animal part in question, unlike the time I thought that pig's trotters sounded "authentic".

Haggis is probably the ultimate example of a regional speciality. To make haggis, you basically take a sheep, shear it (optional), stick your hand down its throat, take a firm grip on its stomach, then pull firmly until it turns inside out. Stuff the result with cereal and anything else that happens to be handy, then boil. Serve to passing Englishmen or anybody else foolish to be willing to force down a "traditional" dish.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Small company, big company, midsize company

During my career I've worked at companies of all sizes from small startup to global. And I've come to the conclusion that for the sake of my sanity I should avoid midsize. At a small company you can get things done yourself. At a big company there are people and systems to do them for you. At a midsize company... well, consider what happens when the 'B' key breaks on your keyboard:

Small company: You tell your boss, "I'm just going down to Fry's/Circuit City/Best Buy for a new keyboard." Your boss says, "OK, while you're out could you pick up a terabyte of SATA drives for the server, and bring back Chinese food for everybody." After lunch, you are up and running again.

Large company: You call the support hotline to request a new keyboard. The next day a technician hand-delivers it to your cubicle, installs it, and upgrades your keyboard driver. He manually tests all 104 keys before leaving. A week later you get an email asking you to rate your satisfaction with the support service provided.

Medium company: Your oss tells you that you aren't allowed to uy your own keyoard as it violates the security policy on ringing employee-owned equipment into the workplace. He has heard of "keylogger" trojans and is worried your keyoard might e infected. ut the company has no process to order a replacement keyoard. You can only order a complete replacement PC, and there's no udget for that. For the next two years, until your computer is due for replacement, you avoid typing messages that require the letter ''... the letter ''... Damn.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

John Allen Muhammad Goes Free

John Allen Muhammad, the Washington DC sniper, was today sentenced to life by a Virginia court. Since the courts in Maryland had already sentenced him to death, his attorney argued that the sentences should cancel each other out. District attorneys for the two states agreed to call it a wash and the judge immediately set Muhammad free.