All entries for October 2009

October 30, 2009


Last Sunday was the end of our Summer-time period. We all set our watches back one hour and were thus allowed to spend 60 minutes more in bed. I completely forgot all about it, and it wasn't until 4pm (when a friend pointed it out to me) that I realised I had just won an extra hour of Sunday. My watch is now back in GMT, Greenwich Mean Time.

I used to think GMT was, by definition, the official time in the UK. It wasn't until recently that I learnt that only in Winter are the two notions equivalent, and that during the period in which Western European Summer Time is used, the official time is technically GMT+1. In other words, while the official time makes two jumps of one hour every year, GMT doesn't. So strictly speaking, if you want to meet up with someone at noon in England in the middle of July, and you want to be a pedant, you should say "11am GMT". Since I learnt this, I have met at least two people who used GMT in the wrong sense, so I take it a lot of people in fact misunderstand the notion of GMT and see it more as a way of distinguishing between time zones, than as a technical term defining a time independent of the season. Greenwich Mean Time is, to be precise, the mean solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. That doesn't mean that the sun will always be at its hightest exactly at noon GMT every day; it means that the average position of the Sun measured at noon GMT will turn out to be the zenith -- or something like that. Hence the word "Mean".

I dug deeper into this and made some peculiar discoveries. It turns out that there exists a plethora of other time standards, the most important one being Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC (more on that abbreviation later). It is based on the international scientific definition of a second:

The second is the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the Caesium 133 atom.

This is a direct quote of the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, the organisation in charge of international standard units, or SI-units. Don't worry if you don't understand it, neither do I. But here's the important bit: The advantage of this definition is that it is a constant, unlike other previous definitions of the second. For example, the time it takes for the Earth to complete one rotation varies slightly over time, so a definition of the second based on that, would yield a unit that wasn't constant.

To get back to our time standards: UTC uses this definition of the second and the assumption that one day lasts for 86,400 seconds (or equivalently, 24 hours, each consisting of 60 minutes, each consisting of 60 seconds), to create a precise time standard. However, it still needs a way to somehow relate to the time indicated by the position of the sun in the sky. There is no point in having a extremely precise and unambiguous time standard if it isn't linked to the relative positions of the Earth and the Sun. How do we make sure that the noon we observe here on Earth is always exactly 12:00:00 in UTC? This is where another version of Universal Time comes into play, namely UT1.

UT1 is another time standard, and hasn't got anything to do with the above definition of a second. In technical terms, it is proportional to the true rotation angle of the Earth with respect to a fixed frame of reference. What does that mean? Essentially, it means that UT1 measures how far the Earth has turned, and sets the time accordingly. To put it very crudely, it is the "actual time" on Earth. It is in that sense a "Universal Time", since it only depends on the Earth's position in space. I won't go into the details of how UT1 is worked out; suffice to know that it is of high precision, and can measure time down to the nearest millisecond (well, almost).

Now, it turns out that the UT1 time standard is slightly slower than the UTC standard. The rotation of the Earth isn't nice and constant, so the "actual time" on Earth will gradually lag behind the scientific UCT standard. This doesn't mean the rotation of the Earth is slowing down (actually it is, but that's a different matter), it just means that the definition of the second given above is a little too "slow" for this specific purpose. The solution to the problem is to regularly "adjust" UTC so that it follows UT1. What this means in practice, is that every now and again, an extra second is added to UTC, giving UT1 the time to "catch up". These seconds, appropriately named "leap seconds", happen on average every 19 months, every time the difference between UTC and UT1 becomes too great. The concept of "leap seconds" is analogous to the idea of "leap years": an extra day is added every 4 years, because a "gap" has appeared between the conventional calendar we use and the actual position of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun. Using this analogy, UTC corresponds to our calendar, and UT1 to the Earth's position. There has been 24 leap seconds in total between their adoption in 1972 and today.

UT1 was introduced in 1928, and when the caesium atomic clock was invented in 1955, various time standards began cropping up, resulting eventually in UTC (officially initiated in 1961) and the subsequent leap-second adjustments. However, there was an issue about the name: The English wanted it to be called CUT (Coordinated Universal Time) while the French wanted it to be called TUC (Temps Universel Coordonné). In the end a compromise was reached, and the name UTC was agreed upon.

Apparently, UTC replaced GMT in most contexts on January 1, 1972. The time used on international news channels like BBC or CNN, is in fact the Coordinated Universal Time, and most Internet application use this system as well. Makes you wonder why no-one seems to know about it.

I think from now on, I'll use the UTC acronym instead of GMT, just to confuse the hell out of everyone.

October 27, 2009

Native Counting

I've had the immense pleasure of being contacted by a fellow anosmic who happened to stumble upon my blog post on the inability to smell. She proceeded to read the rest of the blog (which is one of the greatest rewards any reader can give me) and says that she "especially like[s] [my] posts on language". So here's to you, Catriona, a post about counting in a foreign language.

Anyone who has ever properly attempted to learn a foreign language, will know that the most efficient way to learn, is to spend some time in the country in question. Learning French in a classroom with a teacher and some books is always good -- even necessary -- but the effects of spending a holiday in France are considerable, especially if you are on your own and thus forced to speak French all the time. Eventually, the language will almost "infiltrate" your brain and your sentences will no longer be direct translations of your native language, but instead they will be constructed and structured directly in French in your brain, without going through the intermediate step of English, or Danish, or whatever language you feel the most comfortable in. This may naturally take more than a week, but given enough time such a change is bound to happen. I remember waking up one morning during my first long school trip to France (the whole purpose was to expose us to the French language) and realising that my dream had been in French. It's a peculiar feeling, a mixture between pride that your language skills have allowed you to reach that stage, and shock due to the unfamiliarity of the experience.

I have spent the majority of last year in England, each of the three academic terms being 10 weeks long. 30 weeks of speaking all but English, with the only exception being my Danish conversations with my parents over Skype. All my dreams are in English, I swear in English, my brain constructs my sentences directly in English, and even my internal dialogue is in English. In fact, when talking to my parents or writing them emails, I often find myself searching for a word or a phrase in Danish that I would have no trouble expressing in English. I sometimes use my English-Danish dictionary in cases like these, effectively creating a new, unforeseen application of the book. So it would seem that my brain has somehow adapted to the environment, and is performing all tasks in a foreign language. And yet... Every time I'm playing cards with my friends, and I need to quickly evaluate the number of cards in my hand or in the deck, I find myself doing it in Danish!

I count in Danish. Be it cards, or people, or papers, it is the one function that my mind still does better in my native tongue. I am of course perfectly able to do it in English, but I can do it significantly faster if I allow myself to switch back to Danish. Consequently, I always count in my head, in order not to frighten or confuse people. From what I have heard, it is in fact quite normal. And rightly so; one would expect the brain to perform better in most tasks when using a more familiar language, so the surprise is that I would rather think in English for most other tasks (at least during term-time). The question is, what is so pecial about counting that makes it tedious in a foreign language?

I believe the answer lies in the fact that counting is something you learn at a very young age, and that you learn to do automatically. It is like walking or riding a bicycle: the process have become something so mechanic and automatic that very little brain-power is actually required to perform it. The only difference is that counting is linked to a language. When you count, a sequence of words, or sounds, will be going through your head, but the significance linked to each number will have disappeared. When you reach "twelve" in your head, you don't stop to think that about its quality as a number, its properties, or even the fact that 12+1=13. "Thirteen" is just the sound that follows naturally on from "Twelve". Only when you reach the last card in your deck, do you stop to interpret the sound "Fifty-one". This now becomes a number, with its usual properties and connotations, and you realise that you're one card short.
So the reason I still count in Danish, is because the sequence I have learnt to recite as a kid starts with "Entotrefirefem...", and changing that automatic process would be, if not impossible, then a very difficult and time-consuming task, requiring a lot of practise. All of which would be pointless in the end, since I might as well just stick to counting in Danish.

This, however, raises another question: What other tasks will also automatically be performed in one's mother tongue? The first answer that comes to mind, is reciting the alphabet, since this is essentially the same as counting, except with letters. Indeed, when looking up words in my afore-mentioned dictionary, I will silently be going through the alphabet in Danish. Also, it would seem like a logical step to assume that if counting is performed in one's native language, then so is basic mathematical operations, like addition or multiplication. Here, I will disagree. While it is true that I can only recite my 7-times table in Danish, I don't use any language when adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing. If I write "6 x 7" on a paper, the symbol "42" will automatically form itself in my mind. I may then add words to it, which could theoretically be in any language. If I'm multiplying them orally, I will still see the mathematical symbols in my mind, and from there "translate" it into whatever language I am speaking. I think the reason this is so different from counting, is because in this case, the numbers are actually perceived as numbers, mathematical objects, rather than a string of letters or sounds.

I am unaware of other tasks that would be unnatural to perform in a foreign language, but I'm sure there must be others. And I dare anyone to show me how you ride a bicycle in English.

October 18, 2009

Minesweeper Tutorial

Hello, and welcome to Virgin Media. So that we can help you faster, please enter your phone number, including the area code.

We’re having trouble with our Internet at the moment. It was finally set up on Tuesday, but no later than Wednesday evening did it stop working. We had already had trouble before the setup, so I’ve spent a painful amount of time on the phone with them. Or rather, waiting for them to pick up. I made the mistake of entering a mobile phone number instead of the newly installed landline, causing me to wait for at least quarter of an hour every time I had an inquiry. So I’ve had my fair share of repetitive pop songs they play for you to “ease the pain of waiting”. As if it wasn’t bad enough.

The question is, what do you do when you have an indefinite amount of time to kill, and you only have one hand available? I think we can all agree that sitting down and staring into space while waiting, is not a good option. Some people I know would set the phone on Hands-free, put it down, and start doing something else that they were going to do anyway. I personally find that I can’t properly get started with any other the task if I have to be constantly aware of any changes to the sound coming from the phone, knowing that at any time I may have to drop everything I have in my hands, get quickly back to the phone and start talking. I need something that doesn’t require a lot of commitment, and that I can do while holding the phone close to my ear.

Which is where Minesweeper comes into play.

Quick recap for those who have forgotten what Minesweeper is, or – God forbid – have never heard of or played it. Minesweeper originally appeared on Windows 95, and has to my knowledge been on all Windows operating systems ever since (just like MS-Paint). The rules are straightforward: a certain number of mines are hidden at random on a grid; if you click on a mine the game is over; if you click on a square that’s not a mine, a number will appear on that square, telling you how many mines in total are in the 8 surrounding squares. The goal is to clear the grid of mines by locating all mines. It is possible to guess your way through a grid, but the beauty of Minesweeper is that a grid can almost always be solved through logical reasoning alone (except of course for the very first click(s)). There is no time limit, but a clock in the upper right corner keeps track of long the grid is taking you to solve, for record purposes.

The game satisfies 3 criteria that I like about a game:

  • The rules and controls are simple. The above paragraph should be enough to make anyone understand how the game works, and even without being informed of the rules one can easily deduce them by trial and error. The game is technically a one-button game, since it enough to left-click on all the non-mines to complete a grid.
  • The game itself is very complex. The number of different grids possible is mind-boggling, so the chances of getting the same grid twice is, for all intents and purposes, zero (Mathematically it isn’t, but it’s damn close). Even for experienced players, a certain amount of brain-power is required, as the positions of the mines are not always obvious from the numbers displayed on the grid. Also, the player may regularly discover new tricks and patterns to increase his/her speed, so it’s a game that can take years to fully master.
  • It’s fun and addictive. Once you get the hang of it, solving a grid provides you with both entertainment and a sense of accomplishment. It takes no more than a second to start a new game, so if you hit a mine, there’s nothing to stop you from trying again (I think this aspect is partly what made the Thopter game so popular). Likewise when you have completed a grid, it’s often tempting to start a new one because you feel you’re on a roll. Furthermore, the record times stored on the computer are taunting, daring you to prove that it is possible to complete a grid even faster.

Another positive aspect of Minesweeper is that it is playable with a single hand and can be stopped at any time, making it the ideal game for those moments spent waiting on the phone.

What I don’t understand, however, is how little credit the game has been given. It seems to me that more people are playing Solitaire than Minesweeper, for example. Everyone knows Minesweeper, but very few actually play it. You may say that this is because it is a puzzle game, and people want something less abstract and more skill/reflex based. I will give a one-word answer: Sudoku. Sudoku has had a massive success even though it is an abstract, solitary puzzle game involving numbers. It has simple rules but complex dynamics. There is absolutely no reason Minesweeper should be branded “inherently unpopular”, when a game like Sudoku can achieve mainstream popularity. All that would be needed is that people give a try. Incidentally I also think that, just like Sudoku and crosswords, Minesweeper could help prevent age-related syndromes, such as Alzheimer’s or Dementia.

So, as an introduction to the this neat little game, here’s a step-by-step breakdown of a beginner’s grid being solved. (NB: If you’re using Vista, the layout will look different. I’m using Minesweeper X, a freely downloadable version which preserves the graphics I’m used to, and which doesn’t interrupt you at the end of each game, like Vista does.)

Minesweeper - 1

People have a general tendency to start in the corners. But there’s really no point in wasting time finding and clicking on all four corners. Go for some random points in the middle and stop when you hit something good. If you hit a mine, there’s no shame in starting again.

We hit a blank space! Blank spaces are equivalent to 0’s, and when you click them the game automatically clears the surrounding squares for you. These in turn may be blank spaces, so their surroundings are also cleared, and we get a “chain reaction” as above.


It is clear that there must be a mine in the hole on the left. Also, the ‘1’ with the red circle in the first diagram has only one available space left, so its mine must be there. The same thing applies to the circled ‘1’s in the second diagram. (A red circle will signal that all the remaining surrounding squares must be mines)

Minesweeper 3

Left diagram: The ‘1’ with the green circle already has 1 mine in its surroundings, so we can safely click where the arrow is pointing. Likewise, the ‘2’ at the bottom already has 2 mines, so the two remaining squares in its surroundings are also “safe”. (A green circle will signal that all the remaining surrounding squares are safe)

Right diagram: The bottom-green-circle-1 already has a mine at it left, so we can click on the square to its right. We get a blank space and several new numbers appear. The top-green-circle-1 also has a mine, so the three squares on its right side are all safe. We now have a ‘1’ (red circle) with only 1 space left for a mine, so we can mark that one. Finally, we also see that there must be a mine in the top left corner.

Minesweeper 4

Left diagram: The red-circle-3 has three spaces left, so those must be the locations of its mines. The green-circle-1 already touches a mine, so the square to its right is safe.

Right diagram: The bottom-green-circle-1 already touches a mine, so we can click the square above it. We get another ‘1’, so we do the same thing.

Minesweeper 5

Left diagram: The red-circle-2 allows us to place a second mine above it. Thanks to this, the green-circle-2 now has 2 mines, so we find another safe square.

Right diagram: The green-circle 2 cannot have any more mines in its surroundings, so we click above it… And voila! Grid completed!

Go ahead, try one for yourself. Don’t worry if it takes you a lot of time in the beginning, you will find that you quickly improve. If you are frustrated by Windows Vista's strange sking and its constant interruptions when you just want to start a new game, I recommend downloading Minesweeper X. For the ones too lazy to do any work by themselves, click here for a video of me completing a grid on Intermediate.

October 07, 2009

Introverts, Unite!

Our wireless Internet connection still hasn't been set up in our house, and won't be ready before the 12th October. So I'm forced to write my blog posts from the library, using either my own laptop (and let it run on batteries) or one of the university terminals (which I am doing now). At the moment, the library is rather busy so I have people sitting all around me, including a very talkative group at the table right behind me. They are probably very nice people, and it's a non-quiet zone where people are allowed and encouraged to chat, but their incessant talking, as well as the other discussions going on in here, is slightly unnerving. I'm one of those people who find it very hard to concentrate when other things are going on around me, moving around and making sounds, and who would much rather work alone, in silence. This leads nicely into what I want to talk about this time, because these characteristics are typical of a certain group of individuals. Introverts.

Now, let's first agree on the vocabulary here. By introvert, I do not mean some eremit who spends his days in a dark room coding computer programs or planning world domination. Likewise, by extrovert, I do not mean someone who spends all of his/her time partying and socialising. With these two words, rather, I mean to split the population into two categories, so that any person can be said to be either one or the other, depending on how their brain works. An introvert, then, is essentially someone whose energy gets drained during social gatherings and large groups of people, and who needs some time on their own to recuperate. An extrovert, then, is the opposite: someone who feels a need to be with other people in order to relax and "re-energise". Usually, introverts tend to be distracted by background noise while extroverts feel more comfortable working with some kind of external stimulus -- like music -- although this is more an indicator than an actual identifier I suspect.

Some people will argue that some (if not all) people have an introverted side as well as an extroverted side, and thus cannot be classified as either. I don't believe that. There may be introverts who have been taught to act like extroverts or who force themselves to do so, and extroverts who are naturally shy (shyness and introversion being two seperate things), but the difference between the two above definitions is so fundamental that one cannot, in my opinion, be simultaneously one and the other. If you met me in real life, you would -- hopefully -- see a completely smiling, open, affable and completely normal person, but that does not change the fact that I am, by nature, an introvert.

My question is: Why should I have to hide this? Why is introversion generally perceived as a bad thing? Everywhere, especially in the job market, there seems to be a focus on skills such as team work, communication and multitasking, skills that are typical to extroverts. If you don't value these, you may well be seen as a bad element in a work group, regardless of your actual efficiency. On Friday nights, I am expected to be in town or at a friend's house or patying or socialising in one way or another (anywhere but home), but I don't take much pleasure in this so I why should I? I don't mind spending time with friends, but why does it have to be socially unacceptable to decline an invitation if I've had a long week and need to spendsome time on my own more than anything else? I'm not trying to be rude, offensive or antisocial, I just regularly require a few hours on my own, time to gather my thoughts, daydream, and be myself, before I'm ready for another dosis of social interactions. In short, all I have is another notion of what it means to "chill", so how come this natural orientation known as introversion, has acquired so many negative connotations like antisocial behaviour, shyness, misanthropy and lack of self-confidence?

The answer to these question has to do with the fact that the vast majority of people are extroverts (75-90% from what I've read), and so extrovert behaviour has become the norm. This leads to introversion being misunderstood and misinterpreted as a personality defect or a sign of hostility. In the same way that I cannot grasp how anyone can get "energised" by a massive party, extroverts fail to understand that we simply enjoy solitude more than social events. Also, it is again this majority that has lead the extrovert skills mentioned earlier (team work, multitasking etc.) to become more wanted qualities in a employee. But while it is true that an introvert may lack the qualities needed to work efficiently in a group, he or she will have other advantages which unfortunately seem to be neglected a lot of working environments. The ability to concentrate and work for a long time on a single task, for example, is common to most introverts, and ought to get more credit in any environment, be it school, university or work. And since when is it a bad thing to be able to complete something on your own?

I did a little research on the Net before writing this, to see if anyone else had been thinking about the same thing. And sure enough, I found an nice article titled "The Tyranny of the Extroverts", which discusses the topic of these "essential" skills further.
Even more ineresting was another article by a certain Jonathan Rauch, who started a whole Introversion vs. Extroversion debate with his innocent piece of writing. If you can't be bothered to read this blog post, then what I'll ask of you is, please, READ THIS. This is good stuff.
Finally, there's a lovely blog held by some Lee Ann Lambert, called Living Introverted. It covers a lot of questions extroverts might have about introverts.

For those at Warwick University: I'm trying to start up a new society, that would go by the name Warwick Introverts. Its aim is essentially to unite introverts and possibly do something about the bad reputation that introversion has received. However, I need 30 signatures, so if you would consider joining such a Society, please contact me and help me get this ball rolling. Also, introvert and extrovert, Warwick student or not, feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear about your agreements or disagreements. Thank you. 

October 2009

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