Monday, 23 November 2009

Why on earth did we watch Oceans 11 on TV?

A couple of weeks ago, my flatmates and I watched Ocean's Eleven when it was on ITV1 (or whatever that channel is called these days. We noticed it was on later that night, decided we were going to watch it when it was on, and then sat through the whole film adverts and all. This was exceptionally bizarre behaviour, not because we didn't like the film (as far as I'm aware, we all do) but because I have Ocean's Eleven on DVD! As far as I can tell, watching a film on DVD is strictly preferable to watching it on TV - no adverts, you can pause it whenever you want, you get to decide the start time, you can always just come back to it later, etc. etc. I've genuinely been struggling to come up with a sensible explanation for our behaviour.

One possible idea is something about the power of trivial inconveniences - maybe it's just too much effort to go into my room, open the DVD box, switch the TV source to the X-box and press play. I'm not sure this holds much water though - we could easily have achieved all of these steps in the time it took for the first ad-break in the film. Although I guess that's what Yvain means by 'trivial' - the benefits of being able to pause a DVD are probably a lot smaller than the benefits of unrestricted access to google.

I don't really have any other explanations, apart from maybe some 'race memory' of when everyone used to watch TV at the same time, so we had something to talk about in the office (but people my age just don't do that - a significant fraction of us watch our favourite programmes online as soon as they've been shown in the US). So I'm still left with the puzzle. If watching Ocean's Eleven was the optimal use of our time that evening, and if watching a film on DVD is preferable to watching it on the TV, why on earth did we watch Oceans 11 on TV?

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Ridiculous Laws being taken to their obvious conclusion part 3,298,674

A judge has apparently decided that being really, really bad at leading murder investigations is not sufficient reason to prevent someone from being put in charge of murder investigations. At least not if they're really, really bad at their job because of "religious" reasons. A policeman is suing the department that fired him for proposing the use of psychics in investigations because, apparently, his belief in psychics is a religious belief:
Judge Peter Russell said that the case had merit because his Spiritualist views "have sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance" to be covered by the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.
Maybe next time someone gets a question wrong in one of my probability classes, they should sue me because believing that all of the outcomes in the sample space are equally likely is part of their religion?

This is a problem I've mentioned before: it's very, very difficult to protect "genuine" religions from persecution without also protecting the religions which are even more obviously silly. Religious discrimination laws are a licence to believe whatever you like, and to claim legal protection for acting on that belief: essentially, a licence to do whatever you like at work, as long as you can convince enough other people that doing that thing is "holy". Silly laws lead to silly court cases like this.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Fermi-type questions

Here are a few interesting Fermi-type questions I've been thinking about recently (and, in one case, on and off for about 3 years). These sorts of questions are almost always trivial if you are allowed to use Google, so if you want something interesting to think about, don't.

  1. Are there more trains or stations on the underground? Almost everyone I ask this starts to answer with "there's obviously more..." and then can't decide which there's obviously more of! I think I know the answer, but I'm not entirely sure. They're certainly within an order of magnitude of each other.

  2. How many pints of beer are drunk per year in the Square Mile? A friend of mine had this as an interview question, I'm still not sure what the best way of getting a reasonable estimate is, although I'm confident I could get within 1/2 orders of magnitude.

  3. How many swimming pools full of water does an average person drink in their lifetime? (say, for example, that a swimming pool is 25m x 10m x 2m).

  4. What is the highest number you could count to? (Assume you have to count out loud, and you have to count in English. Assume whatever you like about eating/sleeping/etc.)