All entries for February 2009

February 25, 2009

Wishful Thinking

Alexander's Alternative Defintion

Wishful thinking (uncountable noun): A second attempt at compiling a computer program without having changed any of the code, in the hope that the errors will magically have disappeared.

February 24, 2009

Proof against Evidence

The last few days have been very busy. Started my Java programming project on Saturday, finished it before the deadline on Sunday. Have had other work to do and still have to send quite a few email to people who are probably wondering why I still haven't written back. So right now, I really shouldn't be writing a new entry for my blog. But I've had several ideas for a blog entry this week, and I just felt I HAD to write something. Oddly enough, what I'm about to write isn't one of the aforementioned ideas, but something that popped up tonight.

I had heard that there was this Grill-A-Christian thing in Knighcote (my residence hall), where you could ask a panel of christians any questions you had about their faith. I wasn't intending to go, not because I didn't want to (discussions like that are usually quite interesting) but because I just felt I had better things to do tonight, like sending those emails and tidying my room; but in the end I was lured by the Christian Union's free pizza. I never eat pizza during term-time, except when it's someone's birthday, or when it's free.

Anyway, it was very entertaining, and at the same time interesting and thought-provoking. I asked a lot of questions, trying to be inquisitive and raising challenging problems without sounding too accusing. The issues covered during the session isn't what I want to write about, though; this entry concerns two words that were used interchangably in relation to a particular question: namely "proof" and "evidence".

Before we go any further, let me point out that this is not a topic about religion or God: it's about the improper use of language. If I see a controversial comment bringing up this subject, I might well delete it, lest it will cause a flame war in a completely inappropriate place. If I fel I can get away with it, I might write an entry on faith, and my faith in particular.

When discussing God's existence, several talkers on the christian panel made use of the words "proof" and "evidence" as if the two were synonyms, and in fact meant the same thing. This is NOT the case: proof is stronger, a lot stronger, than evidence. If you have evidence that X is true, you have facts that make X more probable than previously believed, whereas if you have proof that X is true, the truth of X is then established beyond doubt. Briefly, given evidence, the truth or falsehood of X is still uncertain; given proof, it is certain. Strictly speaking, proof is only possible in Mathematics or other systems that employ formal logic to a given set of axioms (like theoretic economics), so a more relaxed version of the word is usually used in normal speech: Proof when when something is shown to be true beyond reasonable doubt. In other words, if X is proved to be true, only a complete moron* would blieve it to be false. You can have evidence for and against something in the same time, but you cannot have proof "for and against it" simultanously. There is either proof or disproof. Or neither.

To take a concrete example: If Shaggy's girl hears the screams getting louder, then later sees the marks on Shaggy's shoulder, she has strong evidence that he is banging the girl next door. Nevertheless, there is still room for doubt, and Shaggy can still pretend it wasn't him. However, if she catches him on camera, then she has proof (as long as she is able to recognise him in the video), Shaggy's lame excuse breaks down, and we will be forced to admit his infidelity. I think I've made my point. Please use the right words when you speak.

*In the case of physics, it's a little more delicate. Some things, such as light being a wave, had been "proved", until some genius found an anomaly and came up with a more suitable explanation

Now that we're here, I'd also like to address another vocabulary issue that crops up in debates about religion. Who hasn't heard creationists accuse the Theory of Evolution of being "just a theory". Again, I don't want to enter a discussion about Intelligent Design, I simply want to point out the meaning of the word "theory".

The word "theory" has two meanings, a scientific meaning and a normal-speech-meaning. The problem is that some people use the latter, when in fact it is clear from the context it should be the former. The common way of understanding "theory" is as a synonym for "hypothesis" or "conjecture", i.e. something unproven. It is a speculation that has come to life but that has not yet been verified by anything practical. There is nothing wrong with this definition: it is indeed what "theory" means in normal speech. But when dealing with the Scientific Method, "theory" has at least one other meaning: A collection of explanations that has been studied in detail, compared with actual data and approved by the general (scientific) community as being true, thus elevating the rank of the "Theory". A good example is the Theory of Gravity, or the more fancy-sounding Theory of Thermodynamics. In the context of the "Theory of Evolution", the word "theory" has this same meaning. It has nothing to do with the unproven connjecture of the alternative meaning. But ID proponent just never seem to realise, do they.

I'm on a roll now, I'll just mention something I read on a bag of The Stamp Collection crisps, today in Tesco's. It went something along the lines: "Terence Stamp spent years trying to find a recipe for gluten free crisps. And, being a master in the kitchen, we knew he would succeed." I'll give 5 pounds to the first person to spot and clearly state the grammatical error in the second sentence.

Oh and I just remembered this. Printed on a tuna sandwich I bought:


Oh for the love of Mike, please check for typos before you print something on a million sandwiches!

Phew, that felt good. I'm done ranting. Already two rants on my blogs, and they're BOTH about language. I have the feeling I'll be comlaining a lot about stuff like this. To be honest, I've got more in mind, but I thought it would be a bit of an overload. I'll try and make the next entry more positive, promise.

February 16, 2009


I have a complaint.

Before their very first lecture, maths lecturers should in my opinion, take a course in how to turn on and off the lights, how to use the projector and, most importantly, how to pronounce greek letters!!!

Now, I can understand the ω-case (omega): In English, one should say ORH-me-ga or OH-me-ga, but the greek ponunciation is actually closer to oh-ME-ga, so it is alright if some people feel like saying it that way. Besides, I think that in a biblical context ("I am the Alpha and the Omega"), one normally chooses the latter of the two pronunciations.

But what has really been getting on my nerves recently, is ε, epsilon.The way you say it in english AND greek, is EP-sih-lon. And yet, I've heard at least three lecturers say... ep-SY-lon. With the pressure on the second syllable, which is, in addition, incorrectly promounced 'SY' as in 'psychology' instead of 'SIH' as in 'cigarette'. Mind you, most of them get it right. I guess the mispronouncers have heard both ways of saying 'epsilon' and just stick to their own because that's how they learnt it. And to be fair, I don't blame them, because languages can be very confusing and issues like that are not easily solved. But. It. Sounds. So. Wrong. The only response I can give, really, is just to mutter 'EPspilon' under my breath every time I hear them say 'epSYlon'. Also, that's when I start thinking about all the students in my year group who aren't as confident in Greek Letters and who will end up saying it the wrong way as well...

While I'm at it, here a list of other quirks I have noticed some lecturers say repeatedly (names omitted):
-"A dice" (instead of "A die")
-"Sqweird" (instead of "squared")
-"Seri-uhs" (close to "serious", instead of "series")
-"Augumented" (instead of "Augmented")
-"Pedestrian (instead of "pedantic")
-"DEE-pend-dent" (instead of de-PEN-dent). Note that this might just be to emphasise that it's not independent.
-"Neighbour-KHOOD" (instead of "Neighbourhood"). I actually quite like it when this particular lecturer says that.

Some would say I'm a jerk for pointing out mistakes like this from people whose purpose at the University is not to speak perfect English but to teach us maths, and who whose mathematical savvy is a thousand times greater than mine. I'd like to point that I'm not trying to criticise or point fingers at anyone (hence the omitted names), but that I'm writing down something I've noticed. I don't claim to be perfect myself; for several years I've been pronouncing words like "distribute" and "salmon" incorrectly, and surely there's still more that I don't say as I should. But still...

It's EPsilon. EP-si-lon.

February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day 2009

Valentine's Day! The one day where you've got an excuse to give a rose to That Special Someone. The time of the year where even shy people get a chance to be noticed. I know that a lot of people think that Valentine's Day is stupid, but they're wrong. The 14th February is really up there in the top 5 of the Best Days of the Year, along with 24 December (Christmas), 27th of February (my birthday), 19th Spetember (International Talk Like a Pirate Day) and 14th March (Pi Day).

People may say that Valentine's Day has been over-commercialised, and that it has become all too superficial. To which I reply: what about Christmas? The perfect example of what a capitalist system can do to a pagan festivity centered on the christian message of loving, sharing and giving. And yet everyone loves Christmas. Maybe not the weeks before and after Christmas, but the day itself is a joy to most people. Why complain about Valentine's Day then? Yes, the flood of cards, stalls and rosy colours can sometimes be nauseating, but that shouldn't prevent you from enjoying the day.

If you're a girl and you sometimes get a rose on VD, you've got nothing to complain about.
If you're a girl, and you don't like VD because you never get a rose, I'm sorry. Tell me your name, I'll send you one next year. But not getting a rose doesn't mean not being loved. I imagine most girls don't get anything on VD, and are quite indifferent to it, and most guys don't spend any money on roses because the girls seem indifferent anyway. I'm sure that any girl with a male friend could indirectly make him undrstand that she'd like a rose. You have a knack for that.
If you're a boy, and you don't like VD because you never get a rose, boy are you naive! On VD, boys buy roses (chocolate, etc.) for girls, the other way round is exceptional. So get off your chair and go out there and get her something. Don't say you don't know who to give it to: there is always someone.


This year, I did something extra: I gave two roses to two random people I met. The first one was slightly puzzled, the second one was very pleased. I'll try it again next year, targeting only those who smile back. Imagine what an awesome day it would be if everyone did that!

February 13, 2009

The Missing N: Genesis

So, this is it. First blog ever, first post ever. I'm not sure why I'm doing this, what this is going to turn into, or if anyone is ever going to read any of this anyway.

But every journey begins with one step.

A good start would probably be to explain the title: The Missing N. No, first, brief word about myself. My name is Alexander Kermit Nørlund-Matthiessen, Alex Norlund for short. At the time of writing, I'm a first-year Maths undergraduate here at Warwick. There's an explanation as to why my surname is that long, but right now, all you need to know is that it reveals that I'm Danish.

So, The Missing N. It all starts a year and a half ago, when I'm signing up for 5 different English Universities through UCAS. The first step is creating an account online. Sounds be simple enough, and indeed it is, except there's one problem. They ask for my surname, but their software will only allow 18 characters - mind you, this is more than enough for most people. But 'Norlund-Matthiessen' contains exactly 19 characters, so when I reach the final 'e', it won't let me type any more letters. Now, I have several options:

-Drop the hyphen. Problem: this would turn my name into an illegible omelette of seemingly random letters.

-Drop the entire 'Matthiessen' bit. Problem: I might run into trouble later, when proving that I am who I am to some bureaucratic bank or institution, when the name on my ID-card is different from the name I've given.

-Drop a 't' or an 's' in 'Matthiessen'. Problem: that would mean deliberately spelling my name wrong (something which just feels... wrong), and I suspected that it would be spelt wrong for a long time, sonce the mistake would be hard to spot.

-Drop the final 'n'

I go for the final option in the end. It would be the easiest thing to explain and get corrected afterwards. Also, on every other form I have to fill in by hand, I write out my full name, so I am therefore convinced that someone, SOMEONE, will realise that there has been an error, and that '...ssen' is a more common ending for a Scandinavian surname than '..sse'.

Months later, I start receiving replies from the universities. And every single one is calling me 'Norlund-Matthiesse', without the 'n'. I just ignore it, thinking that I'll inform whatever university I end up in of the mistake, once I get there in September. In the end, Warwick University turns out to be the place. However, when signing up online for accomodation, an error message appears, saying that my surname doesn't match any name in their database. Alright, I send them an email explaining the situation, and get a very nice reply with these exact words:

"Thank you for your email. I confirm that you name has been changed on our admissions database and that we have also received your application for accommodation."

Relief. Trouble's over, that's that. No more missing n's. Or so I think...

A few days before the start of term, my certificate, guaranteeing my entry to Warwick University, is sent to me. And guess what? No N. 'Norlund-Matthiesse' again. I send them an email saying that I know it's kind of late, but there is (still) a typo in my name. No reply. Start of term, I go there, and tankfully no-one cares that there's an N missing on my certificate, no-one even notices. Only thing is, their database is still wrong, so anything prepared for me with my name on, is missing an 'n'. My University Card. My University email address. My student records. My pigeonhole.

And more to the point: the url of this blog. Take a look at the location bar. See what I mean?

They still haven't corrected anything. I guess I should go and tell them, but I suspect that part of the problem is that their database, as UCAS', can only hold a maximum of 18 characters. But still, I'd better get it sorted before I get my diploma, in 4 years. Somehow, I have the feeling that this missing N shall follow me a long time...

February 2009

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