Saturday, May 31, 2008

"random" post

In high school, I wasn't great at math. My mom always said to think of it as another language.

In the case of a recent job, I learned how little I know about that language. I was translating, as usual, a diploma and transcript. Often I come across a course or two in the transcripts that I am not familiar with, but usually it makes some sense, like Fundamentals of Biogenetics. But this person had a masters degree in computer science, and let me tell you there are some strange things in that field.

The first thing I learned, which I should have known already, is the word for "random." I'm not sure I really used this word much when I was in China, although I know when I was describing life in Beijing to English-speakers I would definitely use it. "Random" in Chinese is
随机 (sui3 ji1). Now, is a complicated word. It can mean "opportunity," but it can also mean "machine." Also "secret." It is also a type of tree. Anyway, the question here is which is it in 随机?

"Random" could be defined as "following an opportunity." Take the definition in the Xinhua online dictionary: It gives the example of "a reporter walked on the street, randomly interviewing people." In other words, interviewing people as he/she randomly encountered them. But in the context of computers, it could be interpreted as "following the machine," like randomly generated numbers, or random access memory. "Following the secret" and "following the tree" don't really work, so we will conveniently disregard them.

I am sure the Chinese word was invented before computers, so it is likely one of those strange, in-between words, that express concepts as they were developed in China, but don't translate directly into English, but are now used in certain contexts.

Here are some more odd math words I discovered.

离散数学 - (li2 san4 shu4 xue2) - discrete mathematics
Sounds like a euphemism for bookie math, but actually this is the branch of mathematics that deals with "discrete" objects like integers (-2, 0, 99), instead of "continuous" objects, like real numbers (-2.5, 1.1, 42.9). Basically it involves algorithms, graph theory, combinatorics, and other really complicated stuff that computer geeks know. (This information was cobbled together from various Internet sites, and is very likely incomprehensible and/or incorrect).
The first part of the word in Chinese, 离散, literally means "leave and scatter," and is usually used in terms of relatives who don't see each other. Probably because they are always doing lattice theory homework in the computer lab. It is also translated as "discrete" for some reason.

排队论 (pai2 dui4 lun4)- Queueing theory
This is a theory that explains why, when you are in the checkout line (or queue) at Costco, you get in the shortest line, but it actually takes the longest. Then it goes on to explain why when you jump lines, the cash register in your new line suddenly freezes up, or the 10 pound pack of cashews won't scan.
Actually that isn't too far off. Queueing Theory (apparently that is the correct spelling) is very complex, but it deals with formulas that try to anticipate how much resources are needed to provide service to customers who are either waiting in line on the phone or online or whatever. According to Shmula's Queueing Theory page, it also involves something called Little's Law and something else called heijunka. Now we are getting into multiple languages so I will stop.

Here are two more, just for S&Gs:

面向对象方法学 - Object-oriented methodology
统一建模语言 - Unified modeling language

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Physics of Falling Contacts

This is a poem I wrote after I almost lost a contact lens.

The Physics of Falling Contacts

The common laws of physics are suspended for a bit,
Some mornings when I get up and at the mirror sit.
I take a piece of plastic: small concave and blue,
And stick it on my eyeball -- if my aim is true.
Oftentimes I miss my mark and down the contact goes,
Or sideways, backwards, even up - why that is no one knows.
Shrodinger his kitty, has got nothing on these things,
For once they come out of their box, only trouble do they bring.
With the contact lens there's only one true state of being,
That's "aggravation," man, but it's worth it for my seeing.

Note: the Schrodinger's Cat reference is about this theoretical quantum mechanics experiment where there is a cat in a box and a vial of poison which is released or not by a radioactive particle decaying. Then there is something about the cat's existing as both a live cat and a dead cat until it is actually observed, at which time its state of being is fixed, or at least it is affected by the act of being observed. I probably got it wrong but it fit into the poem nicely I thought.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Working on a translation the other day, I logged onto Chinese Google. I was surprised to see the signature colorful "Google" title in grey, and a black and white banner with the exact date and time of the huge earthquake that hit Sichuan Province on May 12.

The banner reads: "May 12, 2008, 2:28 p.m. Let us always remember this moment, and wish peace for those who perished, and strength for those who survived."

Clicking on the banner brings you to an information page, which has links to news about the quake, and also has a feature where you can type in a message looking for a relative. Or, you can send a text message to a server with your name, location and contact information so others can find you. Google also has a search page where information for survivors has been posted. It says: "As of May 21, 5 a.m., 38,200 entries have been recorded, covering 80 hospitals."

A typical entry says:
Name: Ren Zhiping
Sex: female
Age: 21
Home address: Du Jiang Yan
Hospital: Chengdu No. 5 People's Hospital
Then it has the phone number and the last time of update: May 20

It is really interesting to see the online ripples of the quake. The first thing I thought of when I saw the 5/12 banner in black and white was 9/11. I remember looking up that day and the whole Web site was messed up and the format was different. The fact that a familiar Web site looked so different was jarring and unsettling. Of course Google often changes its logo to suit an occasion or a holiday, but the change to black and white - the Chinese colors of mourning - had a similarly disconcerting effect.

I was in Chengdu once, and traveled through Sichuan Province briefly, but I have some vivid memories from there. It is a beautiful (and super poor) place with amazing food and a huge variety of people and cultures. I'm with Google in wishing peace and strength to all the people there.

UPDATE: Actually it looks like all of the search engines are doing the black&white color scheme as part of a whole period of mourning, not just Google.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Compassion vs. Competition

Competition is derived from the Latin, competere, which means "to strive for together." Compassion is also from a Latin word, compati, meaning "to suffer with." They both feature the "com-" prefix, meaning "together." And both of these concepts can translate into the setting of say, a badminton tournament, where players are both suffering and striving together -- to win.

But the questions I had to ask myself at the last tournament in Fort Collins were: Is it possible to be compassionate in the midst of competition? Or is the "killer instinct" necessary to become a winner?

Here is the scenario: Last time, Michala and I had played a tournament together in the B bracket at the Colorado Open. In our first match we got summarily trounced by a guy who was clearly an A-level player; and his daughter, who was clearly inexperienced (not to mention like 12 years old) and probably a C or below. We kind of avoided smashing at the girl, since she was young and it seemed kind of wrong. But we paid for it by losing the match. Our compassion for the opponent cost us the match; or at least it cost us a bunch of points, which is the currency of badminton medals.

This time at the Fort Collins Open, we played down a level, in the C-bracket, thinking we would have a better chance at winning. But, the lesson from our last tournament came back to us in a new and diabolical form. This time, our opponents were a really good woman, paired with a beginner guy. I had talked briefly with the guy earlier and knew he was a newbie, and we'd also seen them play together. So from a purely strategic point of view, we realized we had to play the guy as much as possible, and avoid hitting to the woman who could probably return anything we threw at her. Which is exactly what we did. I felt slightly sorry for the guy as we were hitting and smashing at him, but we were winning, and I figured that it was all in the name of competition, so let 'em have it.

OK, the game was won and we moved on. We were going to be in the finals! Yay! But wait. Here comes the guy from the previous game, walking over to me. I said Hi. But he was mad at me. He said I was "unprofessional" and played with poor character. He said he is good at pool, but if we were playing pool he would not treat me the same way. I didn't know what to say so I said I was sorry. The slight twinge of guilt I had during the match with him and his partner suddenly mutated into a giant guilt-monster. I had caused this guy to have a bad time, and it was because of trying to be competitive.

He was suffering alone by losing, thus there was a lack of compassion there from me. But were he and I both striving for the same thing, i.e. competing? I was striving to win. Was he merely striving to have fun? And is that really in the spirit of the overall tournament setting? His comment about pool made me wonder: if I was in a pool tournament with the guy, would he really not try to beat me, and instead play down or let me win? Probably not. (I am bad at pool anyway, so it is a valid hypothetical situation -- not that he knew that.)

In the finals, we faced a team of a high level male player, and his wife, who was not as good. We knew to play the woman as much as possible, but we wound up not being able to do that very effectively. Not because we felt bad about doing it, it was just that the guy was much better. So we got the silver medal, which was great, and we felt we'd earned it, especially because of the final match, which went to 3 games (you play best of 3).

It might just be that there are no clear lines here. We have another tournament coming up on Sunday, and hopefully we can continue to learn from our experiences. This time we have decided to play in the B bracket again, to test ourselves.

Is playing to win a sin? Honestly, I don't think so, as long as we are growing and learning and suffering along with everyone else while striving to get better. But I still feel for the guy.