Tuesday, March 20, 2012

We're Gonna Pay for This...

84° in March? In upstate New York? It may be one for the record books. The average high for March 20 in Albany, according to Weather.com, is 47°F. The record high was 75°F (set in 1894). The record low for this date was -10°F (1967—figures; that was the year I was born).

I don't know if it means Saharan conditions in July and August, the revenge of Old Man Winter next year, or (more likely) drought conditions this summer.

But it could just as easily snow next week. I remember back in April 2000, I was visiting Schenectady (I was still living in LA at the time) and it was in the upper 70s and sunny one day, and literally the next morning I woke up and we were having a blizzard (of course, I had to catch a flight). Also, we had a blizzard in Syracuse in May 1989 two weeks before my college commencement. So who knows what to expect?


Well, “Boxing Day” (aka the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament) could have gone better. I was in ~50th place (top 10%) with 100% accuracy until the dreaded Puzzle #5, which is traditionally the most difficult of the tournament. I had no problem with Puzzle #2, which is the second most difficult, and which caused everyone a lot of anguish. Puzzle #2 (constructed by Patrick Merrill) was titled “Boustrophedon,” which is a word I actually know from having edited The GATF Encyclopedia of Graphic Communications—“boustrophedon printing” refers to a printing device that prints one line from left to right, then the following line from right to left, then left to right, and so forth. The term comes from the Greek bous (ox) and strophe (turning), referring to how an ox plows a field. In fact, when I first saw the puzzle title, I immediately thought of a dot-matrix printer and, in fact, 78 Across was “Boustrophedon machines common in the 70s and 80s”—the answer being in fact “DOTMATRIXPRINTERS.” The trick to the puzzle was that you were supposed to fill in the answers in each alternate row backwards. I caught on quickly by realizing that 16 Across, “Confederacy of Dunces author” (John Kennedy Toole, I loved the book) didn’t fit with the down answers unless entered ELOOT. Then it was pretty easy from that point on, although proofreading was a challenge.
But Puzzle #5 (constructed by Patrick Blindauer), which everyone was complaining about, was called “Going Underground” with the hint “Follow the tunnels made by five creatures to complete this pesky puzzle.” I kind of knew what they were getting at, but I was thinking moles, gophers, and not ants. The theme answers started in one box, and then continued diagonally downward for three rows, and finished up in a second box. Here’s how it would work:
8 Across: “Open piece of real estate,” three letters. You enter “VAC,” three diagonal boxes below the C then contain the letters A-N-T, and it finishes up in 31 Across, clued only by “—” which was “LOT.” So, VACANTLOT, essentially. And there were five of them.
I did not get that until there were about five minutes left. For the first time in four tournaments, I was unable to complete the puzzle in the allotted time.
I was nearly perfect on the remaining two puzzles, except for a somewhat unfair crossing in Puzzle #6 that everyone got wrong and was complaining about. It was: 37 Across: “The ‘I’ of I.M. Pei” and 34-Down, “‘Did I just step in...yuck!’” I have no idea what I.M. Pei’s first name is but I was certain that 34 Down was EWW, which would have made 37 Across IWOH. Turns out, his name is actually IEOH, and 34 Down was EEW. Eew, indeed. Few people got that one right. (Usually it’s I.M. Pei’s last name that turns up in puzzles.)
Ultimately, I finished 107th out of 594 (down from 65th out of 655 last year).
This year, there was an additional contestant, a crossword puzzle solving computer called Dr. Fill (waka waka). Although like the Jeopardy-playing computer named Watson, Dr. Fill is good at anything that involves quickly accessing facts, but puns—and, of course, the boustrophedon puzzle—give it problems. It solved most puzzles in about 2 minutes, but got things incorrect. Ultimately, it finished 144th. So I at least did better than the computer.
Last year’s champion Dan Feyer retained his crown.
Now..from crosswords, to Cross-Fit, although it would be interesting to combine them.

Chances Are

Someone I know once referred to the lottery as a tax on bad math skills. And, indeed, one of the reasons I rarely play the lottery (I think at most twice in my life) is that I am aware of the astronomically low probability of winning. And if there is one thing I have learned over the years, it’s that I’ve never had any success with random chance (or blind luck). So I tend to avoid casinos and lotteries—and even horse-racing (ironically, given where I live). (And don’t even get me started on real estate, which is the biggest scam in the world.)
Economist Felix Salmon has a blog post up about a “get rich quick” video that CNN/Money had been running (it’s since been taken down) which purports to explain how you can “beat the odds” in the lottery.

Lustig’s advice is simply bizarre: he reckons that you should buy lottery numbers in sequence, and that you should never buy “quick-pick” (randomly-generated) tickets. In fact, if you’re going to play the lottery, the rational way to play the lottery is to do the exact opposite of Lustig’s advice.

I found this an interesting point. In terms of strict probability, it makes no difference if you pick the numbers yourself or have a computer pick random numbers, and it even makes no difference if you pick sequential numbers or not. After all, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 is just as probable as 5, 18, 35, 44, 58. In fact, there is no reason to even avoid playing the numbers that won the previous drawing. Lotteries don’t have a memory. 
But, in the extremely unlikely event you win, your chances of not having to share the payout apparently improve if you use random numbers:

The reason is that when lotteries have big prizes, those prizes are parcelled out between everybody who had the winning numbers. For instance, in August 2010, Lustig had a winning ticket in a draw where the jackpot was $197,985.84. But so did someone else — so he ended up winning only half that amount. And if you want to minimize your chances of overlapping with someone else, you’re much better off accepting a set of random numbers than you are using some kind of human-generated method. Remember when 110 people all had the winning numbers 22, 28, 32, 33, and 39, just because those numbers were printed in fortune cookies?

Birthdays, for example, are common lotto fodder, and it is not especially improbable for many people to have the same birthday, even if you add the year. So if you use your birthday to generate your lotto picks, you’ll likely find many other people who share your birthdate—and your lottery winnings. 
And many people played Hurley’s lottery numbers from Lost—and had to share the payout when four of the numbers actually did win.
But there are benefits to lotteries—they help finance education, after all, which is not  bad thing.
Scratch-off games are a different kettle of fish, and at least one person figured out how to crack them. But even roulette wheels are not perfect, as engineer Joseph Jaggers—the famous “man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo”—can tell you.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Rule Britannica

Times change--but not too much. The other day, it was announced that there would no longer be a printed edition of the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica, although it will continue to exist, as it has since 1994, as a subscription-based online encyclopedia. So the days of the door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, like the Fuller Brush man (remember that?), are likely gone forever. The reasons for its demise in print are pretty obvious--but are not what you may think. As Wired kind of points out, it wasn't Wikipedia that killed Britannica, although it didn't help. Actually, it was the computer and the Internet. Or, more specifically, the search engine.

I personally have never owned an edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, but in the early 1990s when I worked as research assistant to Marilyn vos Savant, we had a set in the office. And, to be honest, it was not user-friendly. Back then we had yet to spoiled by easy access to things on the Internet (although I've been online since 1992, for many years there really wasn't much of anything there), but even so finding specific information in the many editions of Britannica was not easy, as I always found the master index a bit wanting. Sure, browsing through Britannica (or "surfing," perhaps) was great, and often once came across interesting things serendipitously (such as the fact that Queen Victoria had a bustle that would play "God Save the Queen" when she sat down; it's not easy to forget things like that!), but finding specific things was not an easy task. Another problem I always had with Britannica was that it often provided more information than was really required, so you could find highly technical treatises on electrostatics, but finding a simple definition of "static electricity" was a challenge.

The advent of the search engine, whether it be online or incorporated into any electronic content, was a tremendous boon, such that I suspect we take it for granted today. I recall that in the nascent Web, Google was far from the first. Before 1999 (when Google was founded), there were a slew of them (Webcrawler, Alta Vista, and of course Yahoo!; and remember Ask Jeeves, where you asked a fictional butler to search for things for you, adding a layer of redundancy to the whole process? Instead of Ask Jeeves, I think an Ask Bertie Wooster would have been more entertaining...).

I love printed books, and even though I write a lot about e-books, and read them on occasion, I'm still not totally wild about them. But reference books like encyclopedias are ill-served by being in print; I think they make far more sense as electronic resources, where searching is far more effective. After all, you don't read the encyclopedia for pleasure (well, I used to), but to find specific information. That is best handled electronically. (And Britannica has realized this, releasing its first CD-ROM edition in 1989.)

As for the impact of Wikipedia, well, it's not been unsubstantial. And despite its reputation, a prominent study conducted by Nature back in 2005 found that Wikipedia was actually about as accurate, if not slightly more so, than Britannica. Wikipedia has become the de facto research tool and even in my Masters Program, professors and students alike (many of them professional scientists) have no qualms about citing Wikipedia entries.

It's tempting to think that it's that fact that Wikipedia is free that accounts for its popularity and for the demise of Britannica, and no doubt that is part of it (but actually Britannica went bankrupt in 1996, before there even was a Wikipedia--or even a Google). But even if Wikipedia existed as a free print edition (which would be impossible; someone actually did calculate--back in 2007--how many pages that would take and it would be the size of an entire library), it still would likely not be even as remotely useful as the electronic version, especially in this day of mobile Internet. I personally can vouch for how many bar bets or other inquiries are settled in moments thanks to an iPhone and Wikipedia. (Or IMDb, as the case may be...) In fact, as I write this, I am on Amtrak using my iPad (and WiFi on Amtrak, which is free, but all data is 10-15 minutes late). I have been using said iPad during this journey to look up the history of MIT on Wikipedia. Just think if I had to haul around a set of encyclopedias...

And why am I looking up the history of MIT? Because I just started reading The Technologists by Matthew Pearl--in print. See? There are some books I still prefer to have in printed form.