All entries for May 2009

May 23, 2009

Student Quantum Uncertainty

Compared to the activity from a few weeks ago, my blog is a bit silent at the moment. And (sorry Vincent) it will remain so until the 9th of June, the day I finish my exams. Right now, I need to do some serious revision instead of spending my time in the blogosphere. After that, I should have enough time to post regularly, as long as I don't run out of ideas.

The reason I am nevertheless writing a post now, is that I had a sudden flash of inspiration a moment ago, when looking for my pencil. I think I have discovered an important truth that should be incorporated in the general theory of Quantum Physics. I claim the following:

If pressure is applied to a student, he cannot simultaneously know where his pencil and his keys are.

Quantum is next Thursday. 9 exams in 12 days. And one is on a Saturday, on top of that. At least most maths exams are 1-2 hours long, unlike some other courses, in which the exams all seem to be 3 hours long. First exam on the list: Linear Algebra.

Linear Algebra pun.

(Maths joke. Never mind)

Wish me luck.

May 15, 2009

Open Letter To The English People


Dear English People,

Forgive me for saying this, but I believe your entire language could need to be revised, so as to eliminate all the illogical idioms, expressions and pronunciations that have appeared over the years.

Don't misunderstand me, English is not the only language to which this applies. In fact most languages I know could do with a quick fix in order to get rid of irregular verbs and confusing terms. I do not mean to criticise anyone. If I may sound harsh at times, keep in mind that I don't mean any of this seriously, that these are merely examples of things that may seem bizarre to a beginner learning English, and that by symmetry it reflects the frustrations that English people may encounter when learning a foreign language. Every language has a few quirks and oddities. Even Danish.

A difference between Danish & English

But we might as well start somewhere. In the same way that a militant atheist may start by picking apart the Bible before scrutinising other Holy Scriptures, I shall have a look at the absurdities of the English language before anything else.

First, something that I came across a few days ago when a friend of mine asked me about the difference between the two french words "savoir" and "connaître". The answer is: "Savoir" means "To know", while "Connaître" means "To know". There's no problem with French here, the trouble is that English people use this verb "to know" to mean two different things, without realising. One the one hand, there is "know" as in "I know how this works" or "You know what I mean". This is used when referring to a piece of knowledge, something you have learnt or that you have worked out. On the other hand, there is "know" as in "I know that man" or "This is a well-known feeling". This is used when speaking of something that is familiar to you, that you have seen/heard/felt/experienced/etc before. A lot of other European languages, such as French and Danish, use two distinct words to express these. Why don't you?
(Notice that the first instance of the verb is usually followed by another phrase, while the second instance is followed by a noun)

Next on my list is the subjunctive. If you (the reader) don't know what the subjunctive is, or if you don't know how to use it, good. That proves my point. The subjunctive is an obscure and unnecessary way of conjugating verbs in English. The basic way of recognising it is: Anything out of the ordinary. "If I were you...". "God save the Queen". "The King ordered that she be released". These are all subjunctives. The English subjunctive is a mixture of the what the French call Subjonctif, what they call Conditionnel, plus some more. In short, it's a mess. And unlike in French, the subjunctive is barely used in normal speech. So please, just drop the whole thing. It's just there to confuse everyone, foreigners and Englishmen alike.

We now get to the nouns. In particular, I am thinking of nouns ending in 's'. You say "a crossroad". But "a crossroads" is also acceptable. Why on Earth do you allow that?! "A crossroad, two crossroads", and leave it at that! "A species". Again, no, call it "a specie" and leave "species" for the plural. "A series". Oh COME ON. Granted, for a series, you need more than one episode, but in just about every other European language there is no second 's'! "A serie, two series". What's wrong with that?

You've also spelt quite a few words wrong. You write "parliament". To me, it looks like someone inadvertently added an 'i' in there. If you don't even pronounce it, why do you have it?
You write "address". Please, go to any other European country, and count the 'd''s. What do you notice?

There are words that are quite simply missing from your vocabulary. Ironically, two of these are linked to the idea of cold weather. First, the hat that you put over your head to cover your ears in winter. I've tried asking people what they call this, and the reply is always: "A hat". Mhmm. Second, there is no word for describing people who are naturally sensitive to the cold, even though this is not an uncommon phenomenon. Both words exist in French ("bonnet", "frileux") and Danish ("hue", "kuldskær"), undoubtedly the two most common languages of reference for what is considered 'normal vocabulary'.

Finally, we get to the pronunciation. Leaving aside the fact that every word has at least two different ways of being pronounce (due to the variety of dialects), there are some serious issues here as well. Alright, every language have some funny ways of pronouncing certain words, and some letters that shouldn't be said. But having silent 'w''s and 'l''s, well that's just cruel. Especially when it's only in really exceptional cases, like "sword" or "salmon".

There's more. 'W'. Look at that letter. 'W'. Say it in your head. 'W'. Now, strictly speaking, doesn't this look slightly more like a double V...?

I could go on about how you pronounce Greek words/names/letters (like Penelope or Euclides), but I've already complained about that in this post, so I shan't spend any more time on it.

To conclude, it is for these reasons that I believe the English language could do with a modernising touch. I am aware that contacting the Grand Administrator of the English Language, and getting the General Assembly to accept these radical changes, is a difficult and tiresome task, especially in the strict bureaucracy of our time. As an alternative solution, I propose that everyone start learning Esperanto right now.

Yours faithfully,
Written on behalf of Anyone Not English

May 11, 2009

No ink, please

I saw this sign outside the L3 lecture theater:

Sign outside L3

So, basically, we have to write in pencil, is that right?

Dilip Mutum has a similar picture on his blog.

May 10, 2009

The Szekeres Chronicles: Search Behaviour

Follow-up to The Szekeres Chronicles: Cheap Flights from The Missing N

Sorry if this posts seems a little dry. If you really couldn't care less about Web Analytics, skip to the Afterthought to get a very brief resume of the post.

Back to our quote:

"Cheap flights" (mentioned earlier) has been steadily decreasing since 2004, because people have had less money to go on holidays I presume [...]

It turns out the true reason for the decrease is of a totally different nature: the real changes are happening in the very search behaviour of internet users. Two things to understand here:

First, searches are becoming more and more brand-orientated. Maybe you felt that the service was remarkable last time you traveled to Sarajevo with Bosna Air, or maybe you have to go to Vanuatu but you boycott Vanuatu Air by principle. So you search for "Bosna Air plane tickets", or "cheap flights Vanair", respectively. This increase in specific brand-name searches translates into a decrease in plain "cheap flights" searches, hence the decrease.

There is, however, a second and more profound reason for the decrease, and it is this one I want to spend the most time on. The basic idea, is that people are becoming more clever in their way of using search engines and so they now start using more and more keywords in order to find exactly what they are looking for. In particular, people are no longer just searching for "cheap flights", but more specific phrases such as "cheap flights from Sarajevo to Vanuatu" or "plane tickets direct flight from New Zealand to Belgium". Again, the more people start searching for phrases like these, the more the searches for "cheap flights" will decrease, albeit slowly.

Now, with Google Trends (or Google Insight, as its successor is called), it is impossible to infer this kind of behaviour from the a few graphs. There are, however, other tools developed by Google that allow users to explore these kind of trends, for instance Google Adwords Keyword Tool. Doing so takes time and patience, but there are people out there willing to undertake such tasks for personal pleasure or profit. Thus, intriguing data is collected:

Longer search terms are becoming more popular 

Over the last year or so, one- and two-word searches have steadily decreased, and symmetrically, search phrases in more than three words have seen a significant increase. I even suspect that this process has been going on for some years now. This confirms our explanation of the Cheap-Flights decrease and generalises it: poeple are searching for longer and longer key phrases.

One last question is: why is this happening? As before, a reason could be that people are, in general, becoming better at using search engines, and therefore use more keywords to find specifically what they are searching for. Instead of settling with "wipeout pulse" in order to find information about the game in question, youngsters now search for "wipeout pulse list all tracks" or something similar; and likewise, users are generally being more specific when searching.

This explanation sounds reasonable enough, and it is likely to be the main, if not the only reason, for the increase in long search phrases. Yet, when I think back to the times when I've seen the "more mature generation"(old people) using Google and other search engines, something springs to my mind. Maybe people aren't becoming more creative and ingenious in their search behaviour... maybe, on the contrary, this is a sign of "search stupidity". Who hasn't seen an adult using an abindance of words like "the", "a", "and", etc. in a Google search? What I'm trying to say here, is that anyone with a respectable knowledge of searches, knows that there are certain trivial words you can leave out in a search. With more and more "grandparents" being initiated to the Web, these trivial words could potentially be included more often in searches. In the same way, one could imagine that the search phrases made by younger people could start to contain more and more unnecessary words as well, due to carelessness for example. All this may sound unlikely, but I don't see any reason to entirely exclude the possibility. In any case, I quite fancy the idea of average search behaviour turning into moronic keyword typing. Charming image.


To sum up: People are, on average, using more and more words in their search queries. This is probably a "good" thing, but who knows, maybe it isn't.

Feel free to comment if you disagree with anything I've written, or if I've written anything that is just plain wrong.

There's more to the Szekeres Chronicles, but I'll keep that for some other time. The lack of comments makes me feel like I'm the only one enjoying this. The next couple of posts should be more light-hearted and un-serious.

May 09, 2009

Paint vs. Paint.NET

As Vincent and other loyal readers may have noticed, I sometimes accompany my posts with a picture I've made. I've drawn these using Microsoft Paint, the free software that comes with every Windows OS. It's very old, and has remained virtually untouched since Windows 95, so in some senses the editing is quite primitive; for example, once a line has been drawn, it is impossible to edit it in any way, like you can in Photoshop. Then again, Photoshop is not free.

Now, yesterday, I decided to download Paint.NET, an "updated", version of Paint, developed in 2004, and available for free on the Internet. I then spent several hours today playing around with it, and I now feel confident enough to compare the two in a reasonably objective manner. (Ahem)

Paint.Net vs Paint

Initially, I wasn't pleased with Paint.NET. Some controls were different from the original version, and there suddenly was a lot more to take into account before you could start drawing. But before soon, I realised how many nice features had been added to this newer version, and I started enjoying myself. To give you an idea, I shall go through the different things that make Paint.NET so much better than its ancestor.

- Anti-aliasing. As you can see in the above image, the lines on the left-hand side look "softer" than those on the right. More precisely, the lines no longer go directly from black to white, but pass through intermediate stages of grey. I didn't immediately notice, and when I did I wasn't expecting it to change much, but the final picture is a lot more pleasing to the eye. Anti-aliasing can be enabled and disabled at will.

- Layers. In Microsoft Paint, it was possible to use the Selection tools to place on object on top of another, but once that had been done, it was next to impossible to seperate the two objects again, unless you were prepared to clean up the operation afterwards with a careful and tirsome application of the Paintbrush. With the addition of layers, moving things on top of each other has become a trivial task. The layers are independent and do not interact with each other, so removing, say, the helmet in the above picture, can be done without damaging the head. More generally, clothing stickmen has become delightfully easy with Paint.NET. Also, layers can be used to "photoshop" (for lack of a better word) pictures and have two Alexanders in the same picture, for example.

My evil twin and me

- Curves. The Straight Line Tool and the Curvy Line Tool has merged into one. And from being a moody and unpredictable object that never quite looked the way you wanted it to look, the Curvy Line has now become simple and intuitive to draw. Also, a subtle but nevertheless important improvement is that the endpoints can now be moved, meaning that if the line isn't exactly on the right spot, you don't have to start all over again. Drawing curvy lines is no longer something you need to dread.

- Colouring. First, there are the fancy Gradient backgrounds as you can see on the left side of the first picture, but to me, that is more like a little extra feature that has been placed there to be used and abused by people who like pretty colours and shiny objects. The real improvement is the new colour palette: in addition to the pre-defined colours, there is a coloured disc from where it is possible to quickly colour combination, and then manually lighten/darken it, or even add transparency. Like most features mentioned here, this isn't anything unique to Paint.NET, a lot of other modern programs have this kind of tool, but it is such a refreshing alternative to the original Paint's way of choosing colours.

- Ouside-Canvas-Clicking. This is something that has frustrated me more than a few times in MS Paint. If for instance you want to split the canvas in two, you had to start your line very close to one border, or there would be a gap through which colours could 'escape'. Also, if you dragged an object partly out of the canvas, so that only half of it was visible, the non-visible part would cease to exist, and thus be unrecoverable. Paint.NET, however, doesn't mind you clicking and drawing outside the box, and this facilitates drawing enourmously.

- Rotating. Whereas selected objects could previously only be moved around and stretched, they can now be rotated as well (although it took me some time to figure out how). For a mathematician, this is immensely satisfying. I can now finally create ellipses whose axes are not horizontal/vertical. If one is drawing cartoons, being able to copy and then rotate already-drawn objects, is also extremely useful.

And then several other features, not to mention all the extra Plug-Ins. No doubt are they of a vast utility to the professional artist, the fractal-drawing genius or other people who have a very clear idea of what they're doing. I inadvertently downloaded a Mega Plug-In pack or something, and now have a plethora of special effects that I haven't dared to touch out of sheer intimidation.

All that being said, MS Paint still has one advantage: It is quick.

Quick Paint Attack

Now, don't get me wrong. Paint.NET is a wonderful editor, and I will probably be using that from now on. But for a quick 2-minute sketch, Microsoft Paint has some neat shortcuts. A right click will cancel a line that is being drawn, something I have frequently used if I was unsure about where to draw a certain line. The Polygon Tool has been replaced by a silly "Freeform Shape" tool in Paint.NET, even though Polygon was one of the most versatile tools in Paint (I used it for drawing the fur clothing in the above picture, for example). The selection tools in Paint.NET also caused me some inconvenience. First, choose the Selection Tool to you select something, then you choose the "Move Selected Pixels" Tool to move it, and before you can do anything to any other object, you have to 'De-Select' your current selection. On top of that, Paint.NET is (for obvious reasons) also slower at starting up and saving pictures. Overall, these small things make Paint.NET slower at doing what it does.

The speed of Microsoft Paint is maybe due to its simplicity. Which is another point I'd like to make. I remember being a six year old kid, having fun drawing colourful pictures on Paint. No-one had to explain to me how to use it, everything was simple and obvious. Had I been given Paint.NET, I would have given up quickly, and gone to find a real (one-layered) piece of paper to draw on. Obviously, anyone able to download Paint.NET by themselves can surely also figure out how to operate it, but my point is that MS Paint isn't entirely obsolete.

Finally, there is a more philosophical reason I still respect MS Paint. When you haven't got many tools to deal with, your creations are certainly limited, but you are also forced to be more creative in the way you use these tools. I've found numerous uses for the Spray Can Tool, that I once found totally useless; I've mastered the Curvy Line Tool; I've pushed the limit of what you can do with Copy & Paste; I've inverted the colours to produce unexpected results. And now I discover that Paint.NET literally has hundreds of tools. A beginner might be tempted to try out all the tools without stopping to think about original ways in which to use these tools. So in my opinion, trying out MS Paint before switching to Paint.NET is a good idea, in the same way that learning one should learn C or Assembly before using Python.

All in all, I have decided to use Paint.NET from now on. I still have some MS Paint pictures on my computer, though, which I plan to use in blog posts sooner or later.

May 06, 2009

The Szekeres Chronicles: Cheap Flights

Follow-up to Google Trends from The Missing N

A while ago, a wrote a post about Google Trends and the economic crisis. It's too complicated to paraphrase. Go read it. Now.


Done? Good. Now, somewhere in that post, I wrote the following:

"Cheap flights" (mentioned earlier) has been steadily decreasing since 2004, because people have had less money to go on holidays I presume [...]

In response to the above quote, a kind soul named Tom Szekeres (have a look at his blog) wrote a mail to me, which contained some interesting facts and links to various sites and blogs (I'll come back to what exactly he wrote). As I started exploring what he had sent me, I got dragged further out into the web of information that lies available on the Internet, and before long, I was drowning in fascinating material on Web Analytics, an area I hitherto had no idea existed.

Also, I had an idea for an awesome blog post. In my head, it looked like this:

Idea for An Awsome Blog Post

Needless to say, I knew not where to start. I now realise that it is going to be impossible to cram all of the above into a single blog post, and then expect people to read it. So I have decided to split it into smaller chunks. To be consistent, and to please Vincent, the non-existent faithful reader who stalks my blog and reads every single post, I shall name this series The Szekeres Chronicles.

As an introduction, let me explain to you what Tom Szekeres does. Somewhere on the Internet, there exists a good-natured site, Cheap Flights, whose purpose is to compare flight prices on different sites, thus helping you find non-expensive airplane tickets, without asking you anything in return but to be its friend. Unfortunately, some people haven't heard of it. This is where Tom enters the picture. Like a benignant eagle, he soars above the Net in search of anyone willing accept Cheap Flights as a travel companion. Anyone mentioning or searching for "cheap flights" (or other variations) enters his Big Blue Book of Statistics and Analytics, and from there, Tom presumably goes on to find ways to spread the word about Cheap Flights.

Alright, he does it in a more professional manner than the way I've depicted it above. But the point is that he knew better than me why searching for "cheap flights" on Google has gradually become less and less popular, which is why his mail was a gem of insight to me. I will reveal the reason for this in the next post in this series. I fear that I have already reached the limit of the attention span of the average blogger.

In the meantime, why not have a look at this surprisingly amusing About Us page?

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