Monday, October 28, 2013

Vocabulary

My brother is two years into getting a degree which I will misname (it’s molecular biology, or biochemistry, or something around about there). While talking to him about what is basically a topic I know nothing about, it has struck me on several occasions just how quickly one’s vocabulary is altered when starting to study a new field. Hundreds if not thousands of new words get thrown at you, and words you thought you knew take on new more technical meanings.  It can be easy to forget just how much of what you know isn’t general knowledge and there are a wide variety of ways in which studying or working in a specialist role (in any industry I guess) can affect your vocabulary.


Apparent Gibberish

For the most part necessary jargon, these are words that have been made up by experts in the field to encapsulate concepts into easily communicable snippets. It’s not really necessary for anyone who isn’t an algebraist to worry about what diffeomorphisms are, or for those algebraists to know anything about meristematic cells. Complaining about this kind of jargon is pointless; experts need to be able to talk at reasonable speeds to each other. It is however a small step from necessary new technical terms to


Bullshit

My general observation is that any free space that exists between the technical terms an expert uses for expediency and the understanding of the same topic held by the general populace will be filled with bullshit. Sometimes it is applied from the outside, so that something which is fundamentally complicated can have enough bullshit applied to the detailed areas to make it seem simple. Sometimes it is applied from the inside, intricate carvings of bullshit tacked on to something simple to make it sound complex to others.


Professional Slang

This is part convenience, part in-joke. Convenience in that it’s easier to say “box” than “computer”, in-joke in that while “duck punching” is a great term there are probably less colourful and more accurate names for it. These kind of idiomatic usages are inevitable in any industry and have a similar albeit more casual basic purpose as real technical terms. Unlike those technical terms, though, I think it’s unnecessarily exclusionary to use professional slang around people who don’t understand it.


Abducting Words

Pretty much all disciplines are guilty of this to some extent or another, probably because it’s easier to use an existing word than it is to make up a new one, but it’s also unhelpful. All the words that currently exist already have a meaning (often more than one), the last thing people trying to provide precision should be doing is adding extra meanings to existing words. Just how unhelpful this is really depends on the topic and the word.

Mathematics uses all sorts of everyday words like ring, field and group to describe mathematical structures. For example a ring in mathematics is, to quote Wikipedia, “...an abelian group with a second binary operation that is distributive over the abelian group operation and is associative.” The chance of confusion with a more prosaic definition of ring is nearly zero.

A computer scientist, on the other hand, using ‘overloaded’ in its programming-specific sense in a non-technical context is risking confusion. In everyday English, it is borderline meaningful to describe a word as overloaded. You could do it, but your meaning might not be clear. A programmer describing a word as overloaded means, roughly, that it has homonyms. If you don’t know this as a listener, you’re either going to be confused about meaning or completely nonplussed.

Next week's word is vehicle.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Ubiquitous

When I go out to dinner I am happy to let things get a little sugary; I am a dessert kind of guy. If I'm going to spend a lot of money on a meal and eat irresponsibly anyway, why not go the whole hog and finish off with a dessert? Sadly, a lot of restaurants seem to pay lip service to the dessert and regard it as little more than an item to checked off the Proper Restaurant List rather than something to take pride in.

There are three items you can rely on to make an appearance on a dessert menu, providing you can convince the waiting staff that you'd really like to see it. First is some sort of dried fruit and cheese situation, the skim milk of desserts. I've no doubt there is a type of person who likes a glass of port and a selection of cheeses to aid their digestion or whatnot but it's not a dessert. I'm not judging such people, it all sounds terribly sophisticated but as the restaurateur you're not fooling anyone with such a feeble attempt to bulk out the number of options on the menu.

Second is "I don't know, I think there's some ice cream out the back?" served in a bowl with a spoon. Always offered with a suggestion that maybe you could spare them the hassle and maybe just buy a tub from the shops on the way home.

Third is thrice damned sticky damned date damned pudding.

There is nothing wrong with sticky date pudding in principle, in fact I'm quite partial to a good sticky date pudding now and then. I'm less convinced that it is such a perfect dish that it deserves its position as the unquestioned lord of the dessert course.

I don't know what it is that has caused this ridiculous situation. Perhaps most chefs just have no interest in desserts and the sticky date pudding is the first item on the syllabus of Sweet Stuff 101. Perhaps the average chef is so enamoured of the possibilities of caramelising every vegetable known to man that there regular caramel has lost its glamour. Maybe the proportion of diners who want dessert is so vanishingly small that there's no margin in buying anything besides brown sugar and dates.

For all I know culinary courses exclude sweet foods, and dessert chefs are the SAS of cookery. "You want to know how to make a cheesecake? Kid, unless you want to end up like old No Face Freddy you'll leave that to the professionals."

Whatever the reason for it, for me the sticky date pudding sits as the ever present excuse to not bother with more varied and exotic options once the plates have been cleared away. Every time I see its name scratched in chalk on the dessert board I can't help but think "you've made your point, you sticky bastard, give someone else a chance."

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Underrated

If you have any interest in sport then you're probably familiar with Moneyball, a book/movie about the use of sabermetrics to identify and recruit underrated players in baseball. When the movie came out in Australia it prompted a wave of fans amongst the commentary fraternity of the AFL. The irony that a group of various ex-players and lifelong experts so fervently embraced a work that, at its core, debunks their profession seems to be lost on them.

The commentariat of the AFL has been particularly enamoured of the moneyball phenomenon. In many ways professionalism is new to the sport; it has only been a decade or so since serious team tactics common in most other professional sports rose to prominence in preference to simply letting the players go at it. A part of this process has been the even more recent rise of the analyst. Compared to normal commentators, analysts focus on backing up their observations with exhaustive statistics. The unsuitability of the AFL to statistical analysis compared to sports such as baseball is an interesting discussion, but I want to talk about the resultant fetishization of the unnoticed.

The almost inevitable result of the rise of statistical analysis of sport is the emergence of the ability (or at least perceived ability) to spot and prove the existence of underrated players. Nothing adds more to the credibility of a commentator than being able to explain why a player you never even notice is exerting far more influence on the game than is apparent to the layman.

While this is basically a good thing, the problem that comes about is a sort of brinkmanship in elevating the unnoticed. First the stars are dismissed, not that they're not important but that they're far less important than generally assumed. This results in a new tier of stars being brought into existence, the first level of underrated players. With time the celebration of these players becomes more widely accepted until it becomes necessary for the experts to claim that those players are not the unsung heroes of the game, but that in fact their accomplishments are only possible on the back of a newly discovered level of statistically elite players. And so it continues until those players whose skill or attitude mean they barely get to play a game are somehow being lauded as the real reasons for a team's success.

The most bizarre extension of this behaviour is the recent trend among commentators in the AFL to start talking about the underrating of the biggest stars in the game. It is weird to hear the same expert refer to the same player in the space of a week as likely to be remembered as one of the best fullback to ever play the game, but then claim that everybody underestimates the importance of his role in the team.

It's not that I'm against the idea of people using statistics to analyse sports, I am after all a numbers nerd and sports fan. I just find it annoying to watch people try to find some obscure combination of statistics to show some player is a secret superhero, just to be the first to do so.

Next week's word is ubiquitous.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Type

This might be a slightly shorter post than normal because I am typing it properly. It may also be a bit fragmented because I'm focused more on moving my hand correctly than on what I'm actually writing. I never bothered to learn how to touch type and was never taught, so like many people I just muddled along and can type at a fair clip. Nevertheless there's the semi-regular need to look down at the keys and the deep shame that I've spent my entire professional life needing to type and doing it wrong. The problem has always been that there's no time to learn, especially not on the job. "Bice, why isn't that new feature finished?" "Oh, because I've been typing really slowly" is not a conversation I imagine ending well.

Things I have noticed so far:

  • There's a whole lot of programming keys that are in inconvenient places. This makes sense considering that the alphabet takes pride of place on a keyboard, but I imagine if I was going to be doing any serious programming while going through this process I'd probably rage quit an awful lot.
  • I feel that the thumbs are under utilised. Maybe it's that with game controllers and phones I'm more comfortable using my thumbs than people were when keyboards were invented, but just using them to thump the biggest key on the keyboard seems a waste. I'm not sure about the ergonomics of it, but I think a narrower spacebar with maybe enter and backspace to the left and right would save me having to flail my pinky about to get a new line or correct mistake.
  • Getting used to hitting keys with my little finger is going to take some time. My pinkies are by far my least dextrous digits (unless toes count as digits, and even then it's a close run thing) and they're working over time. 
  • I seem to adopt a far better posture touchtyping. It's probably because my hands need to be in a constant position, but it is, so far, a lot more difficult to type while sitting at a roguish angle.
  • Muscle usage is quite different in that extensive typing seems to put much more load through my forearms. I guess it's probably as much to do with the new posture as anything else.
  • I'm getting more typos, as would be expected, but I'm getting fewer extraneous keystrokes because my fingers are travelling less to keys. So that's nice.
  • Soooo slow.

While I'm bothering to learn I suppose it would make sense to learn Dvorak at the same time but I find it unsettling for the symbols on the keyboard not to match the symbols that appear on the screen when I type. Also I always roll my eyes when I ask to use someone's computer and they have to change the layout.

Overall I imagine if I keep this up I might get back to speed parity with my previous, more organic style within a few months. Or I'll give up.