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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice analysis! I've never thought these from such perspectives. "ji" can also mean "probability"/"chances" - consider "ji lu", which is probably more closely related to "sui ji"/"random"? - Vince