January was big

January was the biggest month on record for this site. From a content perspective, there were 31 new posts, helped along partly by the introduction of the All things Excel category and partly by the Monty Hall problem. Oddly enough, or maybe not, the previous high from a content perspective was January 2004, with 26 posts.

Usage has never been higher, with 51,052 pages being served in January (an average of 1,646 per day) from 12,875 visits (415 per day). The previous high was 42,120 pages served in July 2005. Traffic has increased by 552% since January 2005, when the site served 7,821 pages.

By far my favourite search term used to access the site was "channel four babe minger thumb scan", successfully directing people here seven times. Not the most popular, but certainly my favourite. India has made it on to the top five countries from which the site was accessed, with 1.0% of known, resolved traffic, behind the US (78%), Mexico (7%), UK (2.5%) and Greece (1.8%). The remainder of the top ten comprises Australia, Germany, Holland, Austria and Costa Rica.

Finally, you may have noticed that I’ve entered the world of Javascript, incorporating a random book of fact and a random book of fiction off to the right each time a page is loaded. Thanks to Sesh for his help in implementing this. Each book is taken from a list of ten that I’m particularly fond of, although as previously posted, I’m still not overly comfortable with the distinction.

Spolsky’s great design: interesting stuff

The regularity of emails from Joel Spolsky has gone up of late, as he’s started writing a set of articles under the heading Great Design, each of which I’m notified about. Some of it is lifted or derived from his book User Interface Design for Programmers, but that doesn’t bother me as I’ve not read it.

So far, it’s compelling stuff, certainly worth a read. The list of chapters gives sufficient insight for me to come back for more, but doesn’t give the game away. The key take-away in today’s lesson is that often, products are great in spite of their flaws: the instantly scratchable, battery-challenged iPod being a prime example.

In the series, he promises to explore some of the design principles of everyday objects, with a particular focus on gadgets and websites. Looking forward to it.

google -democracy site:.cn

It seems that the jury’s divided on Google’s decision to compromise its ideals in search of the yuan; more so than was the case when Yahoo! and Microsoft made similar decisions.

Alan gives a very balanced viewpoint. Meanwhile, 12’s mindset is pretty much made up, with her entry The New Evil Empire. Bill Thompson, the hugely irritating technology reporter for the BBC believes it makes sense.

Google was (and still is) seen as the nice guy of the internet. They weren’t a part of the original bursting bubble; meanwhile, their revenue stream is sufficiently well hidden from the end user that many see it as a loving company out for the good of the end user. This viewpoint is echoed by its mantra: do no evil. (As an aside, many might argue that the mantra itself is grammatically incorrect, and that it should read don’t do any evil, but that’s by the by.) And as with Filo and Yang at Yahoo!, it’s fronted by two seemingly affable guys who haven’t let their success get in the way of their principles. Or have they?

If they were still pre-IPO, would they have made the same decision? It’s difficult to say for certain, but my view is that their principles would have won out, and they would have ignored the huge opportunity offered by China, or else worked their way round the barriers rather than conforming to them. However now they have shareholders to answer to, and if they don’t hit China now, then they’ll lose out in the long run, as their competitors reap the rewards of a ripening market.

It’s a toughie. My principles are firmly in the camp of ignoring the Chinese government’s demands (just as Google has done with those of its own government) and the opportunities that it may offer. On the other hand, they’re a business, and in the long run, ignoring China would compromise their position as market leaders. Maybe do no evil and shareholders together form an oxymoron that just can’t work.

The decision will certainly knock some of the gloss off the Google brand. Whether this will have a long-term impact remains to be seen.

Odds are odd

The Monty Hall problem continues to bubble. It’s strange how certain scenarios play havoc with your intuition, allowing your mind to jump to conclusions that are mathematically off, sometimes way off.

In trying (and failing) to explain the rationale behind the problem the other day to my hosting provider, we went on to explore a similar scenario. Instead of there being three doors, imagine there are 100. And instead of the host opening only one door, imagine he opens all but two (the one originally chosen plus one other), all opened doors coming with an accompanying bleat.

Even in this scenario, he believed that switching offered no benefit to the contestant. So I upped the ante.

Imagine I’ve put a red sticker on the shoe sole of one person in the world. Now I ask him to choose anyone in the world (without them lifting their feet). (He chose someone from China, after confirming that he wasn’t allowed to choose himself.) I then eliminate 5,999,999,998 people one by one (assuming there are 6bn. people in the world), all of whom are bereft of a red sticker. So there are two people remaining: his original choice and the one remaining person I didn’t eliminate.

Even under this scenario, he was of the opinion that switching offered no benefit, even though the reality means that your odds of success increase by 599,999,999,900%. That’s 599 billion percent.

It seems that once your mind is convinced of something, it takes a lot of evidence to prove you wrong. Even overwhelming odds failed on this occasion.

Excerpts from Karl Pilkington’s diary

Woke up to the news that Tony Banks had died. There was a piece on the news about how everyone was shocked. Got me thinking about an invention: a watch that counted down your life. If it said you’ve got three days left, go to the doctors.

Told Suzanne [Karl’s girlfriend] about invention. She said she wouldn’t buy one. But she said that about the iPod.

[…]

A fella on the plane was reading Coy Mag. It was a fishing magazine. I glanced over and noticed he was reading the Pond of the Month article. Don’t think they could make it into a weekly magazine.

[…]

There was a really fat bloke on the plane. He was playing on his PSP. While I waited to go to the toilet, I looked at what game he was playing. It was darts. He’s that fat and lazy he can’t face playing a more active game on a games console.

[…]

Sat next to an old fella. Old men’s ears and noses carry on growing as they get older. Suzanne noticed his fingers were fat too. Maybe they continue to grow. Suzanne didn’t laugh when I said that her arse had the same problem.

Excel solution: the Monty Hall problem

It seems that as was the case when Marilyn vos Savant published the correct answer in the New York Times back in 1990, my entry is causing some (seemingly) intelligent people to blunder. (I have to be somewhat polite here, as one of the blunderers is my hosting provider.)

The rationale in the post below is pretty straightforward, as highlighted by the friend who originally sought my help:

"Perfect … even I understand that!"

Nonetheless, it seems some people need some further evidence. What better way to help than via the powers of Excel. Here’s a spreadsheet that takes you through the logic behind both the no switching option and the switching option. Each row in each of the sheets represents a unique experiment, with each element that is up to chance being driven by an independent random number.

In the no switching option, the only things that are random are the prize-winning door and the door originally chosen by the contestant. In the switching option, both of these elements are still random, as is the door that Monty opens, although this is sometimes forced.

The spreadsheet contains 50 rows of experiments, although you can copy a row down as far as your computer’s memory will allow to see where your odds settle. Using all 65,536 rows (65,532 experiments of each type), I recorded a 33.15% win rate for games in which I stuck, and a 66.72% rate for games in which I switched.

Please use literally literally

I’ve noticed it on the odd occasion in the UK, but it’s prevalent in New York: that is the misuse of the word literally. Usually, when you hear it, you can safely interpret the exact opposite. Apparently, such usage is known as a "general intensive".

I heard two such examples on the local news. The latter is beautiful.

– A passenger literally went nuts while on board a plane
– A truck that blew over on a bridge, threatening to drop into the waters below, was "literally hanging on by its fingertips".

Rationale behind the Monty Hall problem

Yesterday, I was asked for the rationale behind the Monty Hall problem, which I originally referred to back in August 2004. I thought it worth sharing. The original problem involves three doors; I also worked out the logic for four.

The original problem goes like this. There are three doors, behind one of which is a car, behind the other two of which are goats. (Not sure why goats, but that’s the version I heard.) The assumption is that you’d like to go home with a car as opposed to a goat.

You’re invited (by a game show host, naturally) to pick a door, which you do. Irrespective of which door you pick, the game-show host opens one of the non-picked doors and reveals a goat. He then asks you whether you want to stick with your original choice, or switch to the other unopened door.

The answer is that you should always switch, as this doubles your chances of driving home as opposed to attracting bemused stares while walking home accompanied by a goat.

Let’s refer to the doors as A, B and C. For the sake of argument, let’s assume you choose door A. (Choosing each of the three doors is equally likely, and therefore the odds you see below can be divided by three and then multiplied by three at the end, with no overall impact. Doing so confuses and adds no value, so I won’t.)

There are three potential cases:

– Case 1: car is behind door A
– Case 2: car is behind door B
– Case 3: car is behind door C

If you don’t switch doors, then your chances of being correct are 1 in 3, as you ignoring any extra information being given. If you select door A, then in case 1 above, you’ll win; in cases 2 and 3, you’ll lose. The odds of each case occurring are equal, so the odds of winning the car if you don’t switch are 1/3.

In case 1 above, the game show host will open either B or C. Either way, switching will result in a goat.

In case 2, he will open door C (he can’t open A because you chose it, and he can’t open B, because it hides a car). Switching will give you door B, which will result in a car.

In case 3 he will open door B (he can’t open A because you chose it, and he can’t open C, because it hides a car). Switching will give you door C, which will result in a car.

So, in equally likely scenarios, (1, 2 and 3), scenarios 2 and 3 give you a car; scenario 1 gives you a goat.

So if you don’t switch, you have a 1/3 chance of winning. If you switch, the probability of winning goes up to 2/3 – double.

Now, let’s move this up to four doors and see what it does to the odds.

The doors are A, B, C, D. You choose A. Cases 1 through 4 are that the car is behind A, B, C, D respectively.

The chances of winning if you don’t switch are 1/4. Now, let’s assume you switch.

In case A, if you switch, you’ll lose, as you chose the correct door in the first place. In cases B through D, if you switch, there’s a 1/2 chance that you’ll win. This is because the car is not behind the door originally selected, and there are only two other doors to go for, one of which has a car.

So, your odds of winning are (1/4 * 1/2 * 3) = 3/8. This is:

[a 1/4 chance of one of a specific potentially-successful scenario
happening] *
[a 1/2 chance of success from switching] *
[3 scenarios]

The 3/8 chance of winning having switched is 50% greater than the 1/4 chance you would have had if you’d stuck.

Four hours of drivel, no doubt

I read today about the Ricky Gervais podcast. Eight half-hour episodes, probably filled with trite observations, lots of head-squeezing and references from Merchant that Chinatown isn’t really a town, more a novelty street.

I think I’ll listen nonetheless.

The Guardian link above only contains the last four episodes, so here’s the full catalogue for those with too much time on their hands.

Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3
Episode 4
Episode 5
Episode 6
Episode 7
Episode 8

Enjoy!

‘bowl is full: no need for Plummer

Yesterday saw the two Conference finals. The NFC showdown saw the Seahawks host the Panthers, while in the AFC, the Broncos hosted the Steelers.

The Seahawks used their home field advantage to good effect, sealing a clinical 34-14 win, removing them from the list of six teams not to have been to the Super Bowl.

The Steelers became the first ever team to beat the first, second and third seeds, all on the road, to secure their own berth in the Super Bowl in two weeks’ time. The Broncos put up little resistance, led in their mediocrity by Jake Plummer. They turned the ball over four times (two lost fumbles and two interceptions), having turned it over only eight times in the 16 games of the regular season. The frustrating part was that Plummer’s two interceptions were both thrown on the first play of their respective drives. Maybe that’s the best way to do it – if you’re going to throw an interception, why bother waiting until there’s false hope?

Maybe not. The first of these interceptions was made with less than two minutes left in the first half, allowing the Steelers to extend their 14 point lead by seven.

The Steelers were impressive, on both offense and defense, and they are currently favourites to beat the Seahawks.

Next Page →