Happy New Year?

I’ve always been flummoxed by the timing of the new year. While I appreciate that it’s based on the Gregorian calendar, it has no connection with the natural journey that the earth goes through every 365.25 days. It would be more understandable if it fell on 21 December, the winter or summer solstice (depending on which half of the earth supportng you).

Anyway, it’s unlikely to change on my account, so Happy New Year to all.

NFL: the play-off picture with one game left

As well as this weekend marking the introduction of a fresh new year, it also marks the culmination of what has been an exciting regular season in the NFL.

Although having secured a play-off berth, the New York Giants could do with winning in Oakland tomorrow night to ensure that they win their division, giving them third or fourth seeding out of the six NFC qualifiers. A loss would open the door for Washington to win the division, giving the Giants a more difficult ride in the play-offs. To complete the New York side of the picture, the Jets’ season was over long ago: they are now propping up the AFC East with a 3-12 record.

Denver (12-3) have clinched the AFC West, and their conference record of 9-2 means that they are guaranteed second seeding in the AFC play-offs behind Indianapolis, both of whom will have a weekend off on 7/8 January as a result. A win for Cincinnati would ensure that they pip New England to third. However, with Cincinnati travelling to Kansas and New England hosting Miami, I think that neither result will favour Cincinnati, and New England will claim third spot.

Currently, the New York Giants, Chicago and Seattle have secured play-off berths in the NFC, with Washington, Dallas, Tampa Bay and Carolina chasing the other three. In the AFC, New England, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Denver are secure. The final place is being chased by Pittsburgh, San Diego and Kansas City.

In the event of any ties in records, here are the rules for determining the relative positions of any two or more teams. It’s good to see that if all else fails, a coin toss is the answer.

Schott’s Original Miscellany

I have just been given a belated Christmas present by Ben: a book entitled Schott’s Original Miscellany.

Without wanting to overstate the brilliance of this book, it is one of the two best books I have ever read, possibly that have ever been published. (When I say read, this is slightly premature, as I have only skimmed through it. However, the sentiment still stands, and I’m confident that it will continue to stand once I have read it cover to cover. For completeness, the only other book that has ever inspired so much joy in me was Richard P. Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.)

The book (Schott’s) is a masterpiece for two reasons. Firstly, it contains inordinate amounts of trivia, some useful, some undeniably useless, elements of which will no doubt contribute to future posts right here. I concur with Samuel Johnson in this quote taken from the book: "There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little creature as a man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible."

Secondly, although published in 2002, the book has been designed to appear as if published long ago (thus seeming to increase its authenticity), compiled with a beautiful traditional-looking typeface (Adobe Garamond) and coming without a fancy sleeve.

This is a must-read for all (both?) people who find even a modicum of entertainment in the ramblings of this ‘blog.

When it rains, should you run?

Here’s a dilemma that I’ve pondered more times than (a) I care to remember and (b) the vast majority of other people in the world (I expect).

When it is raining, you are bereft of an umbrella and have a fixed distance to go, should you run or walk to your destination?

I usually think about this when the heavens have opened, my umbrella is safely tucked away in the cupboard at home, and the dilemma is in full effect. However, given the relative complexity of the maths involved, I’ve never come up with an answer.

By running, for every minute you’re out in the rain, you get wetter than you would do walking, as there is a greater surface area of your body exposed to the rain, assuming it’s falling vertically. Instead of just your head and shoulders receiving the brunt of the downpour, the full front of your body is now getting drenched.

On the other hand, if you’re running, the total elapsed time exposed to the rain is diminished, as you reach your warm, dry destination sooner. The question is this: is the reduction in the overall drench-time sufficient to outweigh the associated increase in the drench-rate?

Well, here’s the answer, somewhat over-simplified but valid nonetheless. Apparently, it pays to run like the wind. Unless, of course, the shower ends before you reach your destination, in which case you’re a damp squib.

World’s Strongest Man, Johnny Damon and an NFL update

I always thought that the festive coverage of the World’s Strongest Man competition was a uniquely British thing. It seems I was wrong, as ESPN has dedicated the next two hours to covering the event, being hosted this year by China. Unfortunately, John Inverdale is not on hand with any emotionless commentary.

In other sport, Johnny Damon has rubbed salt in the wound of the most bitter rivalry in baseball by signing for the New York Yankees, having been with the World Series-winning Boston Red Sox for the last four seasons. I found it slightly odd that he had to shave off his beard and trim his locks to conform with George Steinbrenner’s code, particularly given that Jason Giambi always looks like he’s just been out on an all-nighter whenever he plays.

And in the NFL, it’s a big week, the penultimate of the regular season. Many thanks to the Buffalo Bills for causing an upset in their afternoon game against the Cincinnati Bengals (37-27). This loss for the Bengals means that the Broncos only need to win one of their last two games (at home to the Raiders, currently underway, and away to the Chiefs on New Year’s Eve) to clinch second spot in the AFC play-offs behind the Colts. Next week’s game at Arrowhead will be tough, particularly now that Kansas are back in the play-off race thanks to their win against the Chargers. Denver have started well against Oakland, notching up an unanswered 16 points with two minutes remaining in the second quarter.

Meanwhile as I predicted, the Colts are having a hard time in Seattle, finding themselves 14-3 down with four minutes remaining in the second. The Colts have little to play for except their own pride, given that they’ve already clinched the division and secured home field advantage, and that they’re no longer chasing a 100% record.

Tishbi Cabernet Petite Sirah 2004

If you get a chance to try this, it’s a great Israeli wine at a very reasonable price.

Holiday bonus – the etiquette

If you live in a doorman building, there is a custom in New York, and possibly the wider US, to give a holiday bonus to the building’s doormen, concierges, lobby attendants and other members of the entourage.

In preparation for this event, a safe is placed on the reception desk wrapped in Christmas paper, complete with a slot in the top inviting envelopes to be inserted. And in case you don’t know who to address the envelopes to, a handy list of all likely recipients is printed out for you to take away. (There are 13 in our building.)

I have no problem with the concept. Salaries range from $25,000 to around $39,000, so they deserve a boost, and I’m sure the boost can be quite significant. Our building has 27 floors, each with around 18 apartments. If you allow an average of $25 bonus per apartment, then this works out at $12,150.

My issue is with the circumstance which surrounds the bonus. From Thanksgiving onwards, there is a palpable increase in the level of service offered to us tenants, no doubt in an attempt to elevate our contribution. This year, however, I didn’t get round to giving mine until the last minute (today). Over the last few days, I have noticed a similarly palpable decline in service (below the original baseline), even a level of contempt, shown by some of the concierges. It’s an interesting study in human behaviour.

Here is an interesting article about the dynamics involved.

Striking is the new terrorism

According to one New York commuter, striking is a form of terrorism. Really? I certainly wasn’t terrified this morning. As a matter of fact, I only found out the strike had gone ahead after I’d arrived in the office following my morning jaunt to work. Although I did note that the pavements seemed to have less foot-fall than usual, which was nice. I remember similar comparisons being made at the time of the blackout of 2003.

While I understand that the trip to work was somewhat arduous for many this morning (and may well be for the rest of the week), it surely can’t be compared to 9/11. It’s as if it’s mandatory to refer back to 9/11 in every major news story. People where I work made it in from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Jersey (and Battery Park City) – a longer commute than might otherwise be the case, but doable nonetheless. Get a grip!

Deal/No Deal

I just watched the end of a new gameshow on NBCDeal or No Deal. (Not the best strategy for NBC’s homepage, btw – of course I want their homepage!)

Basically, the contestant is presented with a set of 26 boxes, each containing a sum of cash – anywhere from $0.01 to $1,000,000. Over the course of the show, they are invited to eliminate the boxes, one at a time, with the view of going home with the contents of the one remaining box. However every so often, the "banker" will call them, offering to buy them off with a cash value to walk away.

My dad mentioned that there was a similar show airing in the UK, hosted by the Bransonesque Noel Edmonds who, I’m proud to say, has his own cheesy website. (Now awaiting comment from a certain S. Collier in Mid Glamorgan.)

For what it’s worth, the banker is a stereotypical fat guy in a suit, silhouetted with a laptop in an office above the studio floor.

At any time during the show, basic statistics suggest that the contestant’s expected take-home pay is the sum of the contents of the remaining boxes divided by the number of boxes remaining. At the start of the show, this equates to $125,736.

Towards the start of the show, the banker’s offers come in lower than the expected take-home – having eliminated four boxes, a guy on tonight’s show had an expected take-home of $115,000 and was offered a measly buy-out of $7,000. As things progress, and the number of remaining boxes decreases, the banker becomes more of a talking Excel formula, always offering round(sum(boxes)/count(boxes),1000) dollars, or put another way, the expected take-home, rounded up or down to the nearest $1,000.

Over time the show will make money, as long as its advertising revenue (of which there must be a lot, given the number of cliff-hanging decisions that are delayed as a result) is over $125k per show. Tonight’s main contestant got greedy, refusing to take $137,000 (cleverly calculated by our fat banker using the formula above), and walking away with the subsequent offer of $25,000 (again calculated using the formula above, with a cool $500,000 swiped from the numerator and only one taken from the denominator). Unlucky!

In comparison to Millionaire, Deal/No Deal takes the uncertainty out of the equation for the producers, and takes the skill out of the equation for the contestant. Everyone’s a winner.

Bush and the excuse that is terrorism

It seems that terrorism has given the US government license to do whatever it pleases. Every time there is something seemingly unethical or illegal, it’s in the name of counter-terrorism.

The scandal in Guantanamo Bay seems to have fallen by the way-side recently from a news perspective; I haven’t heard mention it for a few weeks now, ever since the UN declined a visit due to restrictions that would have been imposed by the US. The only possible reason for the decline in news coverage is that it’s old news, despite the fact that the associated scandal hasn’t gone away.

And last week, Condoleezza Rice defended America’s position with respect to secret CIA prisons in Europe, and the treatment of people under investigation.

For the past couple of months, rumour has been rife about Bush’s stance on a proposed new anti-torture law, reports suggesting that he would use his presidential status to veto the measure. Fortunately, he has backed down on his previous veto threats, even if this back-down has been forced by overwhelming political pressure as opposed to common sense.

And today, Bush is defending his position on secretly monitoring communications in the US. In so doing, he criticised the New York Times for exercising their constitutional right to freedom of speech, indicating that their reporting of this has resulted in enemies learning information they should not have. It seems naïve to think that if a journalist can find out such information, then al-Qaeda cannot.

It seems that by justifying a policy by referring back to 9/11 and terrorism, anything can be accepted. All of this from a president who allegedly recently referred to the Constitution as just a god-damned piece of paper.

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